Next state school superintendent faces challenges

The greatest challenge the next Maryland state schools superintendent may face is that he or she isn't Nancy S. Grasmick.

Grasmick has been such a powerful figure in education for two decades, by virtue of the relationships she built with legislators, board members and district superintendents, that it will be difficult for anyone who follows to have the same independence, observers say.

She is "a dominant force. She has done things her way. And the next person coming in I think will be in the shadow and will have to establish their own way of doing things," said former Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who sometimes sparred with Grasmick.

Grasmick announced this week that she will retire, effective June 30, after serving as the state schools superintendent since 1991. The state school board will appoint the next leader of the school system, which under Grasmick became No. 1 in the nation.

A number of observers say that it would be best if the next superintendent is from Maryland but that it is more important to have a great leader who is a quick study. They also listed a set of priorities that include focusing on reducing the achievement gap of students of color and low-income students, figuring out ways to be innovative within the constraints of tight economic times, working collaboratively with the teachers unions and higher education, and making science and math a priority.

Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, said the state board will have to first decide what their agenda will be for the coming years. It may be, he said, that Marylanders are happy with the status quo and will not want to embrace a more radical agenda that might lead to a change in the often-criticized charter school law or the practice of getting rid of teachers based on seniority. "I don't know what the present school board has as its priorities. There are a lot of very controversial issues nationally," he said.

But more importantly, experts also said, the state school board should focus on the next superintendent's personality and background as much as the agenda.

Much of Grasmick's capacity to get things done, said Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso, has to do with her "history, her political astuteness and quite frankly her personal capacity."

Alonso said that state superintendents are removed from what happens in classrooms and don't have much authority, but that Grasmick has been able to gather power from her ability to work collaboratively with district superintendents, teachers and school boards.

She was so successful at doing this, several observers said, that she was able to sometimes thumb her nose at a governor, or two.

But that won't be true of the next person in the job, and those willing to predict the future say that the state school board will have to be careful in its selection or the disparate groups that Grasmick has been able to hold together will scatter and begin to bicker, making it difficult to get much accomplished.

The state faces an unusual number of challenges for schools in the next several years as it tries to meet the goals it promised in its winning application for the Race to the Top federal grant, including creating a new teacher evaluation system based on student achievement as well as transitioning to a new curriculum and testing system based on national standards. Glendening said the next superintendent will have to make sure he or she can collaborate with the teachers unions and those working on the budget, or the state could see the kind of fights that have occurred elsewhere in the nation.

"We have seen education torn apart in other states," he said.

Grasmick herself would be happy to offer advice to anyone doing a search. She wants her replacement to be viewed as an expert, energetic and willing to travel around the state, and able to work well with the 24 superintendents. "The ability to work with and to be rowing together in terms of our agenda becomes very critical," she said. Rarely, she points out, have the superintendents disagreed on a critical issue before the legislature or the state board during her tenure.

Grasmick has a deep knowledge of how schools work and of education policy. Alonso said she impressed him immediately when he first walked into a school with her. "What I experienced most at first was a person with the extraordinary knowledge of the work," he said.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller would like to see that in the next superintendent. "We need someone with a great deal of teaching experience and supervisory experience," he said, adding that the next leader also must place children first and draw authority from the assumption that student needs are behind all of their actions.

"She transcended politics. Her loyalty was always to the students," Miller said of Grasmick.

Several observers said they believe the next superintendent will have to help make the case that education should not be cut in the next critical years of budget deficits.

William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said the leader needs to preach the importance of education to the economy of the state. "We as a nation are losing our ability to educate our citizens and be a leader in that regard," he said, and so the state must focus on setting higher standards.

The change in leadership does offer some advantages, several experts said, including the opportunity for the governor to become more involved in education with a dynamic personality whom he helps choose. Though the governor is not directly involved in hiring the superintendent, Gov. Martin O'Malley has appointed all of the current members of the state school board who will decide on Grasmick's replacement.

And it gives the state a chance to shift course if officials choose to do so. Particularly in these poor economic times, Glendening said, the new leader must work well collaboratively as Grasmick has not always done. She often butted heads with governors, including O'Malley, who tried to force her to step down early in his first term.

The search may take a long time, said Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch, but he wants the board to "take their time and take a hard look nationally."

Glendening agreed, saying the state board should stress that "we are going to continue to have the best school system in the country and that we need the best superintendent."

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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