School chief fighting for job Schmoke meeting with school board


City School Superintendent Richard C. Hunter is fighting for his job amid speculation that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants him out.

Schmoke was meeting with the city's Board of School Commissioners today to discuss the superintendent's contract.

Hunter, who has said he wants to remain as superintendent, was unavailable for comment. But Douglas J. Neilson, spokesman for the school department, said that he had discussed the resignation rumors with Hunter and that the superintendent's position had not changed.

"He's looking forward to serving out his contract, and is still interested in entertaining discussions on a continuation of his contract," said Neilson.

Schmoke summoned the board amid indications that he will drop Hunter, either by not renewing Hunter's three-year contract when it expires July 31 or by seeking the superintendent's resignation.

The meeting also comes in the wake of a "satisfactory" board evaluation of Hunter's performance, which has been widely interpreted as a less than favorable grade for the school chief, who earns $125,000 a year.

The mayor, who has been critical of Hunter in the past and, according to some reports, considered dropping him earlier this year, was typically tight-lipped about his intentions yesterday.

Schmoke confirmed that he had met with Hunter privately Monday. Asked about reports that he had sought Hunter's resignation during that meeting, Schmoke said, "I'm not prepared to comment on that."

But he added, "I will have something to say about [Hunter's status] later this week."

School board members contacted last night said they did not know what turn today's meeting would take.

But one source who had met with the mayor in recent days took a less than sanguine view of Hunter's future with the system.

"It doesn't seem very hopeful at all for the superintendent," the source said. However, the source noted that "it is not clear at this point" whether the mayor has asked for Hunter's resignation.

"I think the mayor wants to move very cautiously," the source said. "He wants to make sure that he doesn't fall into any legal loopholes, and make sure no due process rights are violated."

The school board technically appoints the superintendent, though the board is appointed by and reports to the mayor.

Under the terms of the superintendent's contract, the board may fire Hunter but must pay him the remainder of his salary as severance pay, in quarterly installments. Hunter would waive that severance pay if he resigned.

Should the mayor decide not to renew Hunter's contract, the board likely would set up a search committee for a new superintendent, Neilson said.

The options could include an appointment from within the system itself or a nationwide search for a new superintendent.

The speculation over Hunter's contract is just the latest bump in a rocky road for the superintendent, who took over the nearly 110,000-student school system in August 1988.

In the past, Schmoke has complained about Hunter's management style, saying privately that Hunter ignored his directions regarding the school system and resolving public controversies.

For instance, two years ago, Hunter and Schmoke clashed when the superintendent at first refused to let Barclay Elementary School use a private school curriculum as an experiment.

Schmoke's displeasure eventually led to the appointment of a deputy superintendent who took charge of daily operations in the school system, J. Edward Andrews, a former Montgomery County superintendent.

But the mayor earlier this year dismissed published reports that he intended to replace the superintendent by June of this year.

The latest round of speculation about Hunter's future began three weeks ago, when the school board issued its "satisfactory" evaluation of the superintendent's performance in the 1989-1990 school year.

That evaluation was seen by some critics as a mere passing grade for the superintendent.

"When the school board comes out and says we are giving you a grade of 'C' or just 'fair,' we in this city have to question whether this is good enough in a school system that needs an 'A' superintendent," said Del. Elijah E. Cummings, D-City. "It's that simple."

The Hunter controversy also could put the mayor in a difficult political position in an election year.

Schmoke made improving the school system a central part of his platform when he first ran in 1987, and effectively hand-picked Hunter as his school chief, after asking former superintendent Alice G. Pinderhughes to step down.

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