State Superintendent of Schools Joseph L. Shilling has shocked Maryland officials by announcing that he will resign that job and take over as superintendent of Queen Anne's County schools, effective July 1.
Shilling, who has a year left in his four-year term, told Gov. William Donald Schaefer of his decision last Thursday and informed members of the state Board of Education at a closed noontime session yesterday.
But his move was made public in a roundabout fashion, through a news release late yesterday from the Queen Anne's County Board of Education.
While Shilling made some general comments about his resignation, he left observers puzzled as to why he would trade the state's top education post to take the helm of the 5,400-student school system in his hometown.
"I want the opportunity to go back into a local school system to try to do some of the things we've been talking about," Shilling said today after a ceremony at state education department headquarters in Baltimore.
"I want Queen Anne's County to be the very best school system in the state and the state to have the best school system in the country," Shilling said.
Shilling said today, "I didn't make the decision based on personal reasons."
But, he added, "it is awfully enticing to be 15 minutes from the office and know that you can go home and eat dinner in the evening before going out to an evening meeting."
The governor "was obviously very disappointed" about Shilling's resignation, said Page Boinest, the governor's assistant press secretary. "He lost somebody who was an innovator, and that's No. 1 on the governor's list of priorities."
And Shilling's decision clearly took top legislators -- and members of the state board -- by surprise.
"This comes as a complete shock," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-City, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who said he had "no hint at all" that Shilling was planning to resign.
Rawlings, whose committee oversees crucial education funding issues, praised Shilling as an innovative school reformer, saying that he "has made an impact on the system that's going to change it forever."
He speculated that Shilling is resigning because "he probably wanted to be closer to the product, closer to the students, closer to the principals . . . than he is."
"I'm really sad about it," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-City, who chairs a subcommittee on education.
She praised a number of Shilling's reform initiatives, including his commitment to holding local schools accountable for their performance.
And Hoffman warned that the momentum for school reform will be lost unless Shilling's successor is fully committed to his program.
"It's a big surprise that he is not staying on to implement what he had proposed to the board," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, D-City, who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee on education and human resources.
Shilling was "clearly attempting to head us in the right direction in terms of academic achievement," said Rosenberg.
He also warned that the resignation comes at a sensitive time, with the state legislature poised to tackle the issue of unequal school funding when it meets to revamp the state's tax system this summer.
Shilling is a strong advocate for poor school districts, said Rosenberg. Although his resignation may not hurt that effort, "it doesn't help," the lawmaker said.
Members of the state board were "disappointed and surprised" when Shilling dropped his bombshell at yesterday's executive session, said board member Donald P. Hutchinson.
"One of the board members kept saying, 'This is terrible, this is terrible, this is terrible,' " recalled Hutchinson. "I do think the board is very, very disappointed because there is so much to be done."
At the meeting, Shilling told board members he wanted to put some of his school reform theories to work in an actual school system, according to Hutchinson.
And Hutchinson cited another possible reason for Shilling's resignation: "He wants to go back home. He wants to go back and work in a comfortable environment."
In a statement released by Queen Anne's, Shilling emphasized his interest in actually running a local system once again. "I want to be a part of the community and work with the teachers, staff and students," he stated.
His county salary of $88,500 a year will be nearly $9,000 less
than his annual state salary of $97,421.
The move is a return to the rural roots for an educator whose career began in the Carroll County schools in 1959.
Shilling was named superintendent of Dorchester County schools in 1971 and served for six years before taking over as the state deputy superintendent in 1977. Starting in 1985, he spent three years as director of the Maryland Eastern Shore Educational Consortium.
In 1988, a defiant state board named Shilling superintendent over a field of candidates suggested by Schaefer. That move caused strained relations between Shilling and the governor at first.
But Schaefer has since fastened on Shilling as a bold administrator, praising his ideas and backing a number of his reform initiatives.
The governor's spokeswoman added that Schaefer remains committed to the school reform package Shilling began, saying, "education isn't going to be shunted aside."
During his tenure, Shilling oversaw an ambitious series of school reforms, some of which were suggested by the 1989 Governor's Commission on School Performance.
They included establishing tough standards for every school to meet by 1995; an annual report card documenting the actual performance of schools and school systems; and new statewide tests that measure how well students apply what they learn in the classroom.
Shilling went even further last year in a detailed reform package of his own. His recommendations included a 200-day school year, compulsory school attendance to age 18 and mandatory kindergarten.
During the most recent legislative session, lawmakers approved mandatory kindergarten attendance.
But they also drastically scaled back Shilling's proposed "Schools For Success" program, which would have provided grants of up to $300,000 to schools having trouble meeting performance standards.