Pressure mounts on Hunter to quit

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

City School Superintendent Richard C. Hunter faces the frustrating prospect of life as a lame-duck administrator unless he opts for an early resignation, school administration observers say.

Public support for Hunter appeared limited, with at least one member of the city's Board of School Commissioners saying the board would likely accept Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's recommendation against offering Hunter a new contract.

Capping months of frustration with the superintendent, Schmoke yesterday recommended that the board not renew Hunter's three-year contract when it expires July 31.

In sharply critical remarks, the mayor said he would not seek to fire Hunter, though he said he would welcome the superintendent's immediate resignation.

The board was scheduled to take up the mayor's recommendation late today and to inform Hunter of its decision in a meeting at Hunter's North Avenue office tonight, said Stelios Spiliadis, school board vice president.

"I think that the mayor's comments and the mayor's decision made a great deal of sense," said Spiliadis, who added he would not be more specific until after tonight's meeting.

Asked whether the board would adopt the mayor's recommendation in its informal vote tonight, commissioner Meldon S. Hollis Jr. said, "That is my expectation."

"How well can any superintendent work who doesn't have the support of the mayor?" asked Hollis. He also said that it would pose "a real political and administrative problem," should Hunter decide to remain after being told his contract would not be renewed.

"The bottom line is, he's gone," Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-City, said of the superintendent. "The most important thing he needs to do is have the confidence of the school board and the mayor."

Schmoke's comments came in the wake of a private meeting Monday with Hunter, where the mayor pressed the superintendent to depart gracefully by simply serving out the remainder of his contract, then quietly leaving.

Schmoke was angered when Hunter failed to respond Tuesday and when news of the supposedly confidential meeting leaked out.

And, in unusually blunt terms, the mayor made it clear that he has little confidence in the $125,000-a-year superintendent, putting Hunter's immediate future in doubt.

"I have serious concerns about his ability to be effective over the rest of his term, in light of what happened," said the mayor.

Hunter was in Washington on unrelated business yesterday when the mayor made his feelings public at a news conference, and has been unavailable for comment.

A school administration spokesman said Hunter would have no further comment until after the board makes its decision. But in a prepared statement yesterday, Hunter said, "I am shocked and saddened by the recent action of the mayor," Hunter said in the statement. He also expressed the hope the mayor and school board would "change the present plan to remove the current leadership of the school system."

However, public support for the beleaguered superintendent remains uncertain.

For example, Del. Elijah E. Cummings, D-City -- himself a strong Schmoke supporter -- said he had received 62 phone calls on the issue by yesterday afternoon, 60 of them in support of the mayor's move.

About 20 members of the city's PTA council voiced unanimous support for Hunter at a meeting last night at city school headquarters.

Anthony V. Stewart, the council's president, said he planned to send a letter today to the school board and the mayor's office outlining the council's objections to getting rid of Hunter.

There also was talk of flooding the telephone lines at the school board and mayor's office with pro-Hunter calls.

Council members said Hunter had made some improvements in the system, and they questioned whether he had enough time to solve the serious problems facing the school system.

"My feeling is you cannot give someone garbage and ask him to clean up the streets in a short amount of time," said Carol Jackson, 36, a secretary and parent. "We cannot point the finger at one man. He's only one man."

George N. Buntin Jr., executive director of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter, said Hunter finds himself without many allies in his bid to stay on as superintendent.

Buntin's group on Monday took the position that Schmoke should retain Hunter for the sake of stability, and advised Schmoke of that. But Buntin said the group would not oppose the mayor's recommendation.

He laid much of Hunter's problem to personality and communication.

"Many people have lost confidence, and the reason for that is the lack of a clearly stated vision for the school system," said Buntin. "He's not a visionary, forceful kind of leader."

Buntin also said Hunter was bedeviled by a basic lack of funding, saying that "no superintendent is going to be successful without dollars."

Irene Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said Hunter squandered the support that he enjoyed when he started the job in 1988.

"We had very high expectations about things changing at the classroom level," she said. "That just hasn't happened."

Dandridge said Hunter dragged his feet on the issue of school restructuring, a concept backed by teachers and the mayor that would grant individual schools greater freedom in structuring their educational programs.

She also faulted the superintendent's aloof management style and his practice of delegating a great deal of authority to subordinates.

"What Baltimore needs, in my opinion, is a superintendent who can get in there, roll up his sleeves, get in the schools with the principals and teachers," said Dandridge. "What we need is a street fighter."

Dandridge also said it would make little difference if Hunter decides to simply wait out the remainder of his contract "because he has not been a hands-on superintendent."

Carol Reckling, a leader of the church-based community group called Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, said Hunter failed to draw effectively on community members who were ready to work to improve the schools.

"When he came in, there was a lot of hope," Reckling said. Over the years, however, "what I've seen happen is there's a lot of . . . frustration and despair."

Reckling and others suggested the city would be better off choosing its next superintendent from somewhere other than the national pool of school superintendents.

The mayor backed that approach yesterday, saying he does not favor a broad nationwide search like the one that led to Hunter's appointment in 1988.

The alternatives could include the appointment of someone from within the system, or even a non-educator who is capable of managing the complex school bureaucracy.

Several observers also urged the mayor and the school board to move fast in picking Hunter's successor, warning that the school system would be hurt by uncertainty.

"My major concern is what kind of transition, and how that is going to eventually affect the kids," said Stewart of the PTAs council.

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