Hunter is entitled to finish out term, school board told Firing, buyout are presented as options by city attorney


Baltimore School Superintendent Richard C. Hunter must be permitted to continue running the school system until his contract expires this July, unless the city fires him or buys him out, a city attorney told school board members at a closed meeting Thursday.

Board members stressed that the purpose of the 5:30 p.m. meeting, held the evening of a school board public hearing on qualifications for a new superintendent, was not to try to get rid of Dr. Hunter, but merely to clarify the provisions of his contract.

"The purpose of it was not to strategize about how to get rid of him," said board member James E. Cusack. "It was to make sure we comply with his contract."

The meeting, detailed by several sources, confirmed what became obvious in the first weeks after the Dec. 20 school board vote not to renew Dr. Hunter's three-year contract: Baltimore is likely stuck with nearly seven months of lame-duck superintendency that many fear will stall the system's plans for improvement.

Dr. Hunter said through school spokesman Douglas J. Neilson that he was not aware of the meeting and therefore had no comment on it.

Legal problems were part of the reason the board and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke quickly abandoned the concept of a "transition team" of administrators who would have run the school system, effectively sidelining the superintendent, said one source, who insisted on anonymity.

The team concept was initially discussed at a closed meeting of the board and the mayor Jan. 8, after it became obvious that Dr. Hunter had no intention of leaving Baltimore even though the mayor announced last month that he had lost confidence in him as superintendent.

But the idea was abandoned within days, also in part because of the objections of Deputy Superintendent J. Edward Andrews, Jr., who did not believe a team could effectively operate the school system.

Dr. Hunter has repeatedly insisted that he intends to remain in his $125,000-a-year job, completing his contract before returning his tenured position as a professor in the education school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Yesterday he said through Mr. Neilson, the school spokesman, that no one has contacted him about considering a buyout of the contract. The city cannot legally buy out Dr. Hunter without his cooperation.

The school board has never formally considered the alternative to a buyout, firing the superintendent, said board members. While Dr. Hunter's contract permits the board to dismiss him without stating a reason, his firing might nonetheless invite controversy or a legal challenge.

Under Dr. Hunter's contract, the superintendent serves at the pleasure of the board, though the city is obliged to pay him the balance of his salary through July 31 if it decides to fire him. That obligation is voided if Dr. Hunter is the one who decides to leave.

Sources say that at Thursday's meeting, Deputy City Solicitor Ambrose J. Hartman clarified what had been a murky issue for many board members: whether Dr. Hunter's duties can be diverted to other staff members, as would have been the case with a transition team. After Dr. Andrews objected to the idea of running the school system "by committee," as he viewed it, the board agreed to instead monitor key programs to make sure the school system is not put on hold.

"It's kind of clear to us now that we cannot give him the impression that we are keeping him as a superintendent in name only," said one source who asked not to be identified.

The superintendent's July 1988 contract includes a provision that reads in part:

"Unless the board exercises its authority . . . to remove Dr. Hunter, to the extent permitted by law, then it is the understanding of the parties that Dr. Hunter will serve as superintendent from Aug. 1, 1988, through July 31, 1991."

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