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Barbara Canavan's retirement [Editorial]

Harford County Public Schools Superintendant Barbara Canavan, left, congratulates School Board members during their swearing in ceremony in 2015. Canavan earlier this week announced her retirement when her four-year conract ends June 30.
Harford County Public Schools Superintendant Barbara Canavan, left, congratulates School Board members during their swearing in ceremony in 2015. Canavan earlier this week announced her retirement when her four-year conract ends June 30. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Barbara Canavan’s announcement earlier this week that she will retire as superintendent of Harford County Public Schools when her contract ends June 30 was not unexpected, nor is it unwelcome.

It’s time for new leadership at the top of the Harford school system, and that’s not to be meant strictly as a knock on Canavan or her overall performance, which most definitely been the subject of criticism in this space at many times during her four and a half years of leading HCPS.

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In an age of fast-moving changes in society – including education – the shelf life of school superintendents is not very long, as many Aegis readers no doubt understand from seeing what happened in the past year in Howard and Baltimore counties.

Superintendents work for local school boards in Maryland — that’s what the law says, anyway, arguments by some to the contrary — and with the move to elected boards, as was the case in Harford beginning in 2001, there has been a greater demand for accountability from the superintendent.

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In the past few years, some members of the Harford school board have become more assertive in their dealings with Canavan, particularly with regard to the budgeting process and how money is being spent. That’s the way it should be, in our opinion, but we also can understand how such actions would produce pushback from someone like Canavan.

Canavan has served HCPS faithfully for 45 years, during which she rose through the ranks from teacher, to assistant principal, to principal, to central office administration, to what may arguably be the most important public position in Harford County. She has leadership of a half-billion dollar corporation with more than 100,000 direct customers — students and their families – and more than 5,000 employees.

Canavan and her late husband, Denis, relocated to Harford County from New York when they were in their 20s and became part of our community, raising their family in the Bel Air, while she worked in the school system and he worked in land planning, first for Harford County government and then for other counties in the state. The Canavans put down roots in Harford County and those roots grew strong.

Barbara Canavan came to work at HCPS at a time when the superintendent’s word was law and no one dare dissent, be they parents, students, school employees, school board members or elected officials who provide much of the funding to run the schools. That she was not particularly adaptable to the evolution that has been taking place over the ensuing four decades regarding the management of local school systems, both in Maryland and around the country, is not that surprising. Cultural change inside most large institutions moves at a glacial pace compared to the world around them.

Canvan’s public relations skills left much to be desired, not only when it came to addressing the periodic crisis, like last year’s racial incident at Bel Air High School or the alleged abuse of special education students at Hickory Elementary School in 2015, but also during the various budgeting controversies, such as pay-to-play and trying to eliminate the swimming program, that have dogged her tenure.

She also seemed uncomfortable in public when marking achievements by HCPS students and staff. Looking good doesn’t necessarily translate to good management results, but where running a major public school system is concerned in 2018 and beyond, leadership can’t ignore either.

HCPS students under Canavan’s superintendency have done extremely well in testing and other measures of scholarship, particularly on the test that still matters in the United States, the SAT. Let’s be clear, if criticism is directed at the top and on down, success should be recognized the same way. It’s an excellent academic team at HCPS, and one of the difficulties the school board may have is keeping much of that team together, as the process to find Canavan’s successor moves forward.

We’ll have a lot more to say about that process in the coming months, but there’s a comment Robert Frisch, one of the longer serving board members and one of three on the current board who were involved hiring Canavan, made earlier this week that bears some scrutiny. Frisch said Canavan was “right person at the right time” during the transition from the last superintendent, Robert Tomback.

Perhaps she was, perhaps not, nobody really knows because that last board did not search very far. Leadership of the current board has vowed that will not be repeated. There’s less than six months for the recruiting and hiring process, but board members have been well aware for months, if not since they all took office in 2015, that hiring a new superintendent would be on their plates. They should be prepared to move quickly.

Canavan has been a tireless advocate for tens of thousands of children who have attended Harford County Public Schools during her time with the system. We wish her well in her retirement when it begins in July.

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