The John Carroll School in Bel Air is laying off several members of its faculty and staff, the school's departing president confirmed this week, while making clear the private Catholic school is not in trouble.
"There are several staff members whose positions were eliminated to get our staffing levels more in line with total enrollment," school President Richard O'Hara said Thursday. "I don't want to convey any sense of crisis or panic. It's not a crisis."
The layoffs are one of several changes expected to occur at John Carroll between the end of the current school year next month and the beginning of classes for 2017-18 in September.
O'Hara, who has been at the school for 10 years, is retiring at the end of June. O'Hara also has been acting principal since last summer, following the resignation of Madelyn Ball at the end of the 2015-16 school year. Ball had been principal for five years.
O'Hara's departure will coincide with the arrival of the school's new principal, Tom Durkin, whose hiring was announced earlier this year. He will start at John Carroll in mid-June.
Durkin has been assistant principal for academics at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel overseeing teacher evaluations, scheduling and professional development. Under his guidance, Pallotti has developed two new academic departments and curricula for four new AP courses. He's been an educator for more than 30 years.
The transition from O'Hara to Durkin, along with the appointment of an interim president should be seamless, according to Betsy Campion, chair of the John Carroll Board of Trustees.
The trustees board is in the process of putting together a search committee to post the job of interim president, then to identify and interview top candidates and make an appointment as early as July, O'Hara said. The interim would serve until June 30, 2018. The search for the long-term president will begin this summer, for a July 1, 2018 start date.
"We think it's all a positive situation. There's no reason it wouldn't be a smooth transition," Campion, whose sons graduated from John Carroll in 1992 and 1994, said Thursday.
O'Hara declined to say how many faculty and staff members would be laid off.
While enrollment at John Carroll is on the upswing O'Hara said, it's not close to where it was eight to 10 years ago. When he arrived in 2007, enrollment was more than 800 students; today it's just below 700, he said.
"Yet the number of staff is not that much less than it was 10 years ago," O'Hara said.
He cites the recession as the first big hit for enrollment, which has been slowly rising in the last five years.
The planned layoffs aren't the first during the 10 years O'Hara has been president.
He said that during his tenure, the private high school tried other cost-cutting measures before resorting to layoffs, which were held to a minimum and done without sacrificing programs.
The latest layoffs stem from the school's look at its strategic planning process.
"We are making necessary decisions now, and we're very optimistic that we'll remain very solvent and sustainable," O'Hara said.
"It's unfortunate, but it's happening everywhere, even in public schools," Campion said. "We never like that to happen, but occasionally it does happen."
Faith part of fabric
O'Hara, 62, said he's calling his next phase semi-retirement, or retirement from full-time work, after 41 years in education.
He said he has enjoyed leading the school and has "10 years of genuine pride in it."
"I have always felt our students, our families, would be very hard-pressed to find this kind of unique combination of really strong academics with countless co-curricular opportunities and a very special, diverse, tight-knit, values-driven community," he said.
O'Hara started his career teaching Spanish in the late 1970s and held administrative positions at schools in Virginia, Nashville, Tenn., and Columbus, Ohio, before coming to John Carroll in 2007 as the Bel Air school's first sole president.
The job was a new opportunity for him that came at a time when he needed to be closer to his hometown of Wilmington, Del., he said. As his parents were aging, O'Hara, an only child, needed to be nearby to care for them.
But the position as president has also allowed him to combine his profession with his Catholic faith, he said.
None of the other schools O'Hara led was a religious institution, and as the school's leader, he couldn't always incorporate his faith perspective.
But, he said "as any leadership position, there's a counseling, pastoral, ministerial aspect to it," O'Hara said.
At John Carroll, however, faith is part of the school's daily life.
"We begin every day, every class and almost every meeting with a prayer," O'Hara, who attends St. Margaret Church in Bel Air, said. "It's just part of the fabric. That was a real draw."
Over the years, he has many opportunities to encourage students to develop their faith.
He would try to "encourage them ... that's it's been a very important part of what it is to be human, particularly in tougher times," O'Hara said.
" Even though it's hard to see and feel and touch, it's real. God is there for you, believe it or not."
When O'Hara was hired, the school was moving away from its prior leadership model of having one person serve as both president and principal.
The president's role, similar to that of a chief executive officer, was to oversee admissions, advancement, facilities, marketing and operations, among others.
The role of principal is like that of a chief operating officer.
"It's very important that the president be an educator as well, because they are really in charge of advancing the school in all respects, which means they need to have an academic vision and then empower the principal, interact with the principal, to carry out that shared vision," O'Hara said.
The principal is in charge of today, he said, the president is in charge of tomorrow.
His assumption of the principal's role for the past 11 months happened after Ball decided to step down, citing a desire to live closer to her family in Baltimore.
"I was pretty crazy to think that was a good idea," he said. "I've been very fortunate. I've leaned very, very heavily on a strong administrative team here. That's been extremely beneficial."
Campion said O'Hara has had a "very successful 10 years."
"He's led the school through all kinds of changes and so I think he's had a good time at John Carroll," she said.
As president, he built relationships and partnerships with businesses, foundations and organizations that exist today. He's expanded the international program, bringing more diversity to the school, and developed a satellite program of John Carroll to China, Campion said. He's behind the leadership for the STEM Academy and the flex program/senior project and has helped create a peace and justice studies program.
"We have to keep up with our competing schools, developing and adding programs," she said.
Time to retire
O'Hara said he had been considering retirement for the past year, making "sure I have time to do other things, as much as I absolutely love education," he said.
Then in December, he found out he and his wife would soon be grandparents in August.
"I saw that as the last sign from the heavens that maybe it was time," O'Hara said.
O'Hara and his wife live in Forest Hill but are thinking about downsizing now that their three children are grown and gone. They are considering moving closer to Towson, where their daughter lives, so O'Hara can be ready for "diaper duty," he said.
O'Hara doesn't plan to retire completely – he's got some feelers out for new opportunities.
Educational consulting at schools or to aspiring teachers is a possibility. He's also interested in working with schools seeking to establish or expand their global education programs.
He'd like to get involved in some nonprofit causes, like underprivileged children or the immigrant population (his mother was Latino).
And then there's his rock band — his outlet.
O'Hara has been part of a band for 40 years, he said. These days, he plays keyboard in a classic rock band called The Jury, which plays a couple times a summer as part of the Feet on the Street summer series in Towson, private events and weddings.
"It's a good thing we have day jobs, we don't play that much," he said. "We do it because we enjoy doing really great music and doing a great job with it and making people smile and dance."
Success measured by alumni
In the last decade, he said, John Carroll has become more clear about its identity and the vision "of what we are as a school."
"This place has such a significant and meaningful impact and has had on young people for 53 years, I think we'll continue to do that," O'Hara said.
"I felt I have stood on the shoulders of many great teachers and school leaders who have come before me," he said. "It's their work that has allowed me to try and serve the school here. I'm hoping the last 10 years have prepared John Carroll to launch into the next phase."
The ultimate outcome of what is done at John Carroll every day is measured by its alumni, O'Hara said.
"To see the kinds of people over 53 years this school has offered to the world, that we have sent forth and to know the kind of impact they have had on the world, that's the ultimate joy for a teacher, for an educator," O'Hara said.