Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie talks upcoming retirement
For eight years, Carroll County Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Guthrie has worked out of an office on the third floor of the Winchester Building in Westminster, down a hallway lined with portraits of former superintendents.
In recent months, a sizable clock from the former Charles Carroll Elementary School, which closed at the end of the 2015-2016 school year and was recently demolished, has rested behind Guthrie’s desk. The fixture has a large clock face to keep time and a smaller clock face that once ran Charles Carroll’s bell schedule.
The fixture has seen years of changes and countless students.
So has Guthrie.
He started in Carroll County Public Schools in 1982, working first as a psychology teacher at the now-closed North Carroll High School before becoming a counselor there. In 1991, he moved into human resources where he spent 11 years, eventually becoming director. From there, Guthrie became the assistant superintendent of administration for eight years before his stint as superintendent began in 2010.
And while the historic timepiece will one day be placed inside the new community center that is planned to replace Charles Carroll, for now, the decades-old clock has been ticking time in Guthrie’s tenure as superintendent, a role he steps down from at the end of June.
Guthrie, who grew up in Menges Mills, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Lock Haven University, before he earned advanced degrees from both McDaniel College and Frostburg State University, will finish his eventful eight-year term on June 30 before he begins a position at Sussex Technical School District in Delaware on July 1. Steven Lockard, whose contract was signed April 25, will take over for Guthrie this summer.
Obstacles from the start
Guthrie’s tenure as superintendent began as the recession was in full force, and was marked with high-profile decisions and controversy, particularly in his final four years. His two terms included the implementation of Common Core, changes in the bus routes, school closures that resulted in legal battles, declining enrollment, budget struggles, student activism and walkouts and the banning of the Confederate flag.
He knows most will remember him by those choices — many, not fondly.
But, Guthrie said, he believes his greatest accomplishment was maintaining the integrity of the structural program of CCPS despite budget struggles and cutbacks. Over the last eight years, CCPS lost almost $40 million cumulative in state funding, he said, yet they were still able to continue to run an effective school system that saw academic success.
“I had to make tough choices along the way. There are some citizens who will never forgive me and will never understand the rationale because ... they believe it affected their children and their lives in a negative way,” he said. “I don't believe that. I’ve looked at everything to ensure that’s not happening. I don’t believe that has happened — I think that’s an emotional response.”
Guthrie said school closures were one of the hardest decisions he had to make. He didn’t revel in doing it, and neither did the Board of Education, he said. Rather, it was something that was the “expectation of the funding authorities.”
While the closure discussion began to receive a lot of attention in 2014, and Charles Carroll Elementary, New Windsor Middle and North Carroll High were ultimately closed at the end of the 2015-2016 school year, Guthrie said potential closures were something he began talking about in 2012.
“No one was listening because I wasn’t naming any schools,” he said.
But the factors that led to the decision started piling on even earlier. The decision to build Manchester Valley High School — which came even before Guthrie’s time as superintendent — combined with declining enrollment formed the perfect storm that contributed to the closure of schools.
In 2007, when he was an assistant superintendent, Guthrie said CCPS officials went to the community after Manchester Valley was planned because enrollment numbers changed and the state said it wouldn’t contribute any money to the project.
“Nothing in the enrollment projections showed that [Manchester Valley] was needed. The better solution — the lowest cost solution — would have been to redistrict 400 students [from North Carroll High School],” Guthrie said. “I’m not negating the fact that [North Carroll High] was overcrowded. The school was overcrowded. But the school was overcrowded because any attempts to redistrict students from that area into the Westminster area was [met] by outrage from the community. They came [with] balloons and signs and I know the community forgets that, but we tried to redistrict students there before it became overcrowded and they said ‘No, we’d rather be overcrowded than come to Westminster.’
“So they got to the state of overcrowded. We showed them the enrollment [projections] changed. ... We had room in Westminster — redistrict 400 students into Westminster. Bring them down to capacity. Failing that, the better solution would have been to build an addition onto [North Carroll High]. The community rejected both of those. And ultimately, despite evidence to the contrary, politics ruled the day and the school was built.”
Two years after Carroll County Public Schools voted to close North Carroll High, New Windsor Middle and Charles Carroll Elementary Schools, the county spent the majority of 2017 grappling with and figuring out what to do with the excess buildings.
Two years after schools closed, members of the public are still angry about the decision.
Tammi Ledley, town manager of Hampstead and someone who spoke out during the school closures, said via email the decision to close schools was “poorly researched, improperly handled, rushed and short-sighted.”
“Our main concern was and still is for that of our children and their future in the community,” Ledley said. “Our businesses have worked hard to rise above the negative economic impact of losing a high school. Our town is continuing to grow in spite of the obstacles placed before us. Because we are North Carroll!”
Deb Painter, a mother of a North Carroll student who was transferred to Manchester Valley, said via email the choices made by CCPS broke the community’s trust.
“The bottom line is that the trust factor is gone from those of us that have followed along in what the BOE has been doing,” she said, but added, “The one thing that I will compliment Mr. Guthrie on is that he always answered my emails, unlike some of the BOE members. He always answered my questions and concerns. I have not agreed with him on much, but I will give him kudos for communication.”
Guthrie said when he started his term as superintendent in 2010, he knew there were going to be monetary struggles.
“We knew that we were facing a financial issue,” he said. “What we didn’t know [was] that it would last eight years.”
‘Just part of the job’
There were enrollment projections that showed a downward trend, but, he said, the school system believed there would be a resurgence. So originally, he said, he didn’t think there would be a need for closures. But after a couple of years of declining enrollment, Guthrie said staff realized in 2012 things weren’t getting better, and conversations began regarding school closures.
CCPS didn’t begin to feel the effects of the declining enrollment and the recession really until Guthrie’s first budget session, he said. And at that point, the school system had already put the money it had been getting from the state to use.
“We’d incorporated all of [these] new dollars into the system, we hired staff, we expanded programs, we did all of these things. But [it wasn’t] looking like [that was] sustainable.”
With his start as superintendent, Guthrie said his first initiative was updating decades-old governing documents and the school system’s mission statement, which was no longer relevant. Vision 2018 was born.
But, eight years later, Guthrie said the school system still isn’t completely on track with that plan, because of lot of the measures of success were based on having the resources to accomplish them.
Reductions in teaching and central office positions and prescription rebate revenue are a few avenues Carroll County Public Schools officials are looking to use in an effort to close a more than $4 million budget gap with one week until the Board of Education is scheduled to approve its budget.
“It would be easy for me to say ‘yes I would go back and [make] these changes’ and everything would have been OK. But that’s not true. The plain fact is, it doesn’t matter what the process is, it doesn’t matter who makes the decision and it doesn’t matter how many stakeholders are involved, despite what some of the public is saying,” Guthrie said. “You make a decision to close a school that’s important to a community — it doesn’t matter what the process is to get there — the people are going to object,” Guthrie said.
The prime example is the current Redistricting and School Closure Committee, he said. After the first round of closures, Guthrie said CCPS heard there should have been a slower process with more public input and a public committee.
“I talked about it for two years, before we did it we had … public hearings, two work sessions, we took public input, my recommendations changed based on public input, and also the board parameters changed based on public input,” Guthrie said. “Now we have a public committee with a facilitator, and the criticisms are still coming. There is no magic way to do this that everybody is going to say ‘That’s great.’ ”
Guthrie also said he doesn’t think the $4 million Gov. Larry Hogan gave CCPS could have been used to bring a different outcome in the school closure situation. It was one-time money, Guthrie said, and all it would have done is delayed the inevitable.
“It was one-time money and I know that's the biggest myth out there, that Gov. Hogan gave us this money to stop. He said, in the letter, you can use it for this, but it is not contingent on getting this, obviously, because he didn’t take it away,” Guthrie said. “But that would have been just a stop-gap, we still would have had an issue with the schools.
“North Carroll High School was approaching 50 percent of capacity. Charles Carroll, despite our numerous requests for capital improvements, was in terrible shape. And New Windsor was approaching less than 300 students. There was no way to sustain that. And whether you make the decision now or a year later it still would have been the decision.”
Guthrie knows he’s taken heat for these decisions. But, he said, it comes with the territory of being superintendent.
“I accept the fact that I made decisions that upset people. I don’t have any illusions that if I would have done it differently, people would have been OK with it. If I had closed another school or taken another plan, that would have just made another set of parents mad and they’d be the ones that were angry,” Guthrie said. “I don’t know that I feel that I’ve been unfairly vilified. I know that I’m the target by some people — not everybody, but certainly some people. But I think people have a right to complain. It’s just part of the job and I accept that.”
For those who worked with Guthrie, what they’ll remember most is a man who was faced with a tough hand of cards, but was always someone who did everything with integrity.
‘Decent and hardworking’
Former Board of Education President Jim Doolan, who finished his term in November 2016, has known Guthrie for more than 30 years. Guthrie is “smart as a whip,” said Doolan, who spent 30 years in Carroll County Public Schools’ Central Office prior to his time on the school board.
“He grabbed everything he could to try to absorb everything he could about human resources,” Doolan said.
Guthrie was always a dedicated employee and gave everything he had to the job. If he wasn’t an expert on something, he would do all he could to learn about it. His authority and leadership grew over the years, Doolan said, and overall, Guthrie did an “outstanding job.”
Doolan said he thinks his personal relationship with Guthrie over the years helped them when they had to make tough decisions.
“We were able to have open dialogue with each other,” he added.
Often, Doolan said, accomplishments show up after a person has left, because people don’t see the day-to-day work. The fact that the school system is one of the best in the state, despite everything that happened, shows the work Guthrie has done, he said.
Guthrie always worked to do his best for the kids, he added.
“I think his legacy is sustaining the outstanding quality of our education,” Doolan said.
Guthrie is someone who is very thoughtful in every decision he makes, and he works to make a decision that’s in the best interest of the school system, said Steven Johnson, assistant superintendent of instruction.
Johnson has known Guthrie for 25 years, from when he was a teacher at Westminster High School and Guthrie was the supervisor of HR. Johnson said he and his wife had a “really extreme medical complication” with their newborn child, and Guthrie guided them through the insurance part and was “incredibly helpful.”
In 1997, Johnson moved to the central office, and the two were eventually colleagues together as assistant superintendents under Charles Ecker.
“He was always a principled person,” Johnson said, adding that Guthrie made decisions that were best for students, and the system as a whole. “Once you’re in leadership, you know not everybody’s going to agree with everything that you do. But he would always give people an explanation of why he’s doing it, he’ll give an ear and they might end up agreeing to disagree, but in the end I think he was always willing to communicate with people.”
Johnson said Guthrie was the right person at the right time to be superintendent of CCPS.
His time in HR and as the assistant superintendent of administration gave him a perspective that served him well as he tried to guide CCPS through very challenging budget years, he said.
“He tried just to do what he thought was best to keep our system afloat, to keep our employees compensated [and] to keep our students learning at the forefront of all that we do,” Johnson said. “That’s what I think his legacy is going to be. He led this school system through some of the toughest years that we’ve been through financially.”
Johnson said he learned a lot from Guthrie, and was always amazed at how he would respond to emails at all times, and always tried to communicate with people the best he could.
Johnson saw his role as someone to help keep things light for Guthrie. Before Ecker left, Johnson said, the outgoing superintendent told him he needed to make sure Guthrie never lost a sense of humor. Johnson said he took that to heart, and over the last eight years, has loved doing his best to make Guthrie laugh.
Jon O’Neal, who joined CCPS in 2010 and took over Guthrie’s role as assistant superintendent of administration, said he has known Guthrie since 1998, when they both worked in HR offices in school systems in the state.
“We undertook a lot of challenging initiatives together. He was supportive through all of those,” O’Neal said. “And he was, at the end of the day, willing to take responsibility for those ultimate decisions and support the work of staff.”
Simply put, O’Neal said, Guthrie was “decent and hardworking.”
O’Neal said once Lockard starts, he will have worked under seven different superintendents in the state, and Guthrie was the hardest working of them all thus far.
“Steve dedicated almost his entire career to Carroll County Public Schools and encountered a lot of challenges as superintendent, but I never saw him abandon his decency as a human being as he approached his challenges,” he said.
Even when he was being personally attacked, O’Neal said Guthrie never changed his professional actions as a result.
Guthrie showed up each and every day and worked hard, and never once missed a school board meeting during his eight-year term, O’Neal said.
“He was deeply invested in his work as superintendent,” he added.
Guthrie said he feels he’s leaving the school system in a good place for three main reasons.
CCPS is instructionally sound, he said, and while they’ve just started to look at new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers scores, there have been significant gains, and the school system continues to excel in every measure as one of the top in the state.
Carroll is also fiscally sound with another balanced budget, Guthrie said.
“For the last three years we — by cobbling together different resources, working with funding authorities, working with the state delegation, working with the state — we have managed to fund three consecutive employee raises with steps,” he said.
And, he said, he’s leaving CCPS with positive relationships with the other public agencies. Guthrie said part of his job is to have relationships with counterparts not only across the state, but also with other leaders in the county.
“It wasn’t always like that,” he said, and it benefits students for the school system to work well with the other agencies.
He also said he feels he’s always been consistent.
“Some citizens have tried to pigeonhole me as a liberal or a conservative. And I've never tried to rule based on any political or economic policy that I have,” he said. “My only goal is to provide a good education for our children ... and also to create an environment that’s conducive to learning.”
Students at Carroll County Public Schools and other educational institutions around the county participated in the National School Walkout at 10 a.m. Wednesday, March 14. CCPS officials said they would allow students to participate in a modified version of the walkout.
Guthrie said recent decisions, like the We the People poster incident in which Guthrie was the final decision-maker in requiring a teacher to remove posters the school system viewed as innately political, is a prime example.
More liberal citizens thought the posters should have been left up, and the decision resulted in demonstrations from students and the community, he said.
Then, with the first student walkout regarding school shootings, Guthrie allowed students to participate, something more conservative citizens were angry about. Those same citizens were happy when Guthrie didn’t allow a second student walkout to occur, he said, but were angry with him over his decision to ban the Confederate flag.
“I keep being labeled as different sides of the political argument and that wasn’t my intent at all,” Guthrie said.
Guthrie said he tried to look at each issue independently, then make a decision he believed to be correct right based on creating a learning environment.
“I hope that, after time, [it] is made clear that I am not persuaded by politics or my own personal beliefs in my decision-making,” Guthrie said.
Throughout his time as superintendent and 36 total years with CCPS, Guthrie said the most significant change was added accountability and standards in education.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that Project Basic — a statewide program for competencies in education — came into action, which was the first attempt to bring accountability to the system, he said. Prior to that, curriculum was often derived in the classroom, which meant a student could take one class in one school system and the same class in another school system and be learning completely different information.
“Now I know there are some people in the community who want to return to that, but we had no assessments,” Guthrie said.
Now, nearly four decades later, things have progressed, he said, noting that there are state comparisons, and next comes national and international rankings.
Guthrie acknowledged that while accountability has been an important change in education, the pendulum has swung far in the opposite direction, and kids these days are having to deal with a lot of standardized tests.
“Clearly, no assessments was not good. We had no way to measure ourselves in the ’70s and ’80s against other students and other counties and even other countries. Basically, as a teacher in the ’70s in different school systems, I gave local assessments but that was it,” he said. “Other than the SATs and the ACTs and those things that may not be aligned to the curriculum, there was really no way to judge how you were doing as a system based on student achievement.”
But, he added, “I believe there is an argument to be made that we’re too far. Testing every year [students in grades] three through eight in reading and math, and once in high school, along with HSA — High School Assessments — to pass may be too aggressive. Teachers’ complaints are legitimate.”
It’s a balancing act, he said, and Maryland has not yet found the right balance.
Guthrie hopes work the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education — better known as the Kirwan Commission — is doing could help find the right balance. Guthrie has been a part of discussions over changes in education both as a superintendent and with his role in the Kirwan Commission. The commission was formed in 2016 by the legislature to look at best educational practices and the funding formula.
The commission had a December 2017 deadline — which would have been prior to Guthrie’s departure from CCPS — but it was announced in October that plans would be delayed.
The big unknown is whether recommendations from the commission are enough to be that driving force to drastically change education, Guthrie said. What has been discussed would be a “grand restructuring of education,” he said. It would change how teachers are trained and paid, and will likely help push universal pre-kindergarten forward.
The recommendations also could restructure how social services are provided to students, Guthrie said. Right now, those services are in silos, but the Kirwan Commission is looking for ways to provide services to students at school as a sort of umbrella.
“There will be a high price tag,” Guthrie acknowledged. “There seems to be buy-in, at least initially now, from the General Assembly.”
But in order for the recommendations to work, he said, everybody — all stakeholders in the state — have to agree to it.
“It is not designed to be done piecemeal. It’s one package,” he said.
Looking ahead to new challenges
Guthrie said of all the jobs he has held within CCPS, there isn’t one that’s been his favorite. Rather, he has enjoyed parts of each position.
There are certainly days he misses that time as a teacher.
“There are times where I go and visit classrooms and I see a teacher who really knows what they’re doing — really knows how to teach and I see engaged students … and I miss it,” he said.
Ask any teacher — no matter what position they hold now — they’ll always consider themselves a teacher, he added. Being out of the classroom, Guthrie said he’s missed that interaction and connection with the kids.
But he also knows he’d miss aspects of being superintendent or being in HR or being a counselor if he had never left the classroom.
No matter where he’s been, though, Guthrie said his focus has been on the students. That’s advice he said he’d pass on to Lockard.
“Instruction is the forefront. Every decision you make, you have to keep in mind how it will affect that student in the classroom. Not an individual student, not an individual school, but all the students,” Guthrie said.
He and Lockard spent a few hours together a couple of weeks ago, Guthrie said, and talked about the issues, the hot-button topics and what to have on the radar as Lockard takes over.
The future of East Middle School, the importance of special programs, the possibility of redistricting and school closures, and the importance of looking at full implications of any decision remain key focuses for the Redistricting and School Closure Committee.
Guthrie said he specifically mentioned the Redistricting and School Closure Committee, and said that’s going to be a “political issue.” If there are no recommendations, some members of the community will think it’s awful, and if there are recommendations, other members in the community will think it’s awful, he said.
“Regardless of what happens, there’s some segment of the community that’s not going to be happy with it,” he added.
During the last round of closures, he said, “virtually 90 percent” of people agreed closures needed to happen, but the process and which schools “nobody had any agreement on.” Guthrie said he thinks it will happen like that again this time.
Guthrie wouldn’t comment specifically on the work RSCC has been doing, but did say he plans to follow what happens because he has a lot invested in the outcome.
“I’m certainly interested in what they will come up with,” he said.
With little time left until his term ends, Guthrie said he’s feeling a little sad. But he also said he knew it was time for him to go and for CCPS to gain a new perspective.
“It was time for me to leave. I said it at the time and I sincerely mean that — eight years is probably all any superintendent should do,” he said, adding that he is happy to be leaving on his own terms. “But it’s bittersweet. This has been my home for 36 years. It’s been my second family. I don’t know what it’s like not to get up and come to work here. So it’ll be different. It’s a transition. I’m very fortunate to find another opportunity where I’ll have other challenges to concentrate on.”