Shilling cites desire to work within community in decision to resign

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Last Thursday, state school Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling told Gov. William Donald Schaefer he wanted to talk. Then he told the governor: "I'm leaving."

"I said, 'Gee, did we do something?' " Mr. Schaefer recalled.

Why is Dr. Shilling, first the guardian of and increasingly an instigator of Maryland's grand plan for education reform, leaving the top state education job to run nine schools in his home county of Queen Anne's?

According to Dr. Shilling, he is leaving because Queen Anne offered him the job and he wants to do it.

It's as simple as that.

He starts his new job July 1, taking a $9,000 cut in his annual pay -- from $97,421 to $88,500 -- and a 40-minute cut in his driving time.

"I think we're headed on the right road," Dr. Shilling said of the state's education programs. "And they're not going to hold that job open for me."

Dr. Shilling's resignation, submitted privately to the state Board of Education Tuesday, seemed to come out of the blue. It flabbergasted board members and supporters.

"The reaction yesterday when we learned of this was uniformly one of shock and what can we do to get Joe to stay," board President Robert C. Embry Jr. said yesterday. "But Joe had made up his mind."

"I'm crushed," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, an education advocate.

It's not as if the can-do, do-it-now state superintendent for the past three years is under fire.

He came in with a mission to transform a gubernatorial commission's recommendations for radical reform into reality and developed a program that outstripped the initial vision, said Walter Sondheim Jr., who headed the school reform commission.

Dr. Shilling's biggest undertaking so far, the new state test for third-, fifth- and eighth-graders, has been cautiously termed a success by state officials after eight days of testing that ended yesterday. It has been surprisingly well received in schools.

His relationship with the governor, rocky in the beginning because he was the choice of a state board rebelling against Mr. Schaefer's candidates, has flourished.

Dr. Shilling says the governor has offered "invaluable support" during the superintendent's battles to build change and the governor speaks glowingly of his state superintendent.

And Dr. Shilling's agenda for reform has progressed steadily, though individual items have died or been deferred for lack of money -- particularly in the most recent legislative session. With a year left in his four-year term, he was riding high.

"In a short period he's probably accomplished more than any superintendent I can remember in recent history," said Delegate Rawlings.

But Dr. Shilling said the Queen Anne's position kindled a desire ++ to practice reform at a different level. It took him a half-hour to decide this was something he wanted to do, he said. "More than anything else, I just want to do it," he said. "I want to go back to the local school system and do it."

He was initially approached by Queen Anne's County board members for advice on conducting a search to replace retiring superintendent John E. Miller.

But Dr. Shilling became one of the 25 applicants, then was one of 11 interviewed by the board, said board Vice President William J. Rankin.

He was officially offered the job last Monday, about six weeks after his first contacts with the county board. His acceptance was announced at a Centreville news conference Tuesday.

In his resignation letter, submitted Tuesday to the state board, Dr. Shilling put it this way: "I want to become a part of a community, roll up my sleeves and work with teachers and students at the local school level. I have helped develop Schools for Success and now I want to go do it."

Said board member Joan C. Maynard: "This is Joe. He likes to be out where the action is."

The state superintendent has seen plenty of action since he took the job in July 1988, after ascending a career ladder that included six years as superintendent of Dorchester County Schools and eight years as deputy state superintendent.

According to the governor, Dr. Shilling admitted to a level of combat fatigue after three years of pushing dramatic and costly changes -- such as the controversial new tests -- in the face of resistance from teacher unions, school administrators and budget planners.

"He said 'I'm just tired of fighting to try to get my programs in operation,' " Mr. Schaefer recounted. "He told me he's tired. He just wants to go back to being a county superintendent."

Dr. Shilling acknowledged that a big plus in his new position will be greater freedom to bring about change.

"That's the basic appeal," he said. "I think [the governor] understands probably better than anyone I've talked to what it's like to go from being a mayor where you have hands-on ability to work with people to going to the state where you have less of that hands-on ability." That shift is parallel to the difference between local school districts and the state superintendency, he said.

The state board had no definite time line or plans yesterday for the search for a new superintendent. Board members will decide in the next week or so whether to conduct a national search, use a search firm or proceed otherwise, said Mr. Embry, the board's president. In the meantime, Deputy Superintendent Bonnie S. Copeland will serve as interim superintendent.

Ms. Copeland is also an obvious candidate for superintendent, though she said yesterday she is still debating whether she is interested in the job. "I love being deputy," she said.

Other local names surfacing include those of Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey and Frederick County Superintendent Noel T. Farmer Jr.

The governor, who fumed over his exclusion from the search that brought Dr. Shilling, expects to be "cooperatively" involved this time, said a spokeswoman, Page Boinest. Mr. Schaefer is scheduled to meet with Mr. Embry next week, she said.

"It won't be a case of the board saying, 'Here's who we picked,' " Ms. Boinest said. "The governor intends to be kept up to date on the process."

Board members say the state's reform plans, initiated by the governor and strongly backed by the state board, will continue without Dr. Shilling. To that end, the board is looking for someone who can stay the course.

"The board is unanimous in support of the direction the state is proceeding in," Mr. Embry said. "We would be looking for somebody who would buy into that. We're not looking for a new direction."

Dr. Shilling said he believed that the programs he has begun would come to fruition. "If the legacy is worth protecting, it'll take care of itself," he said. "If not, it'll disappear."

School reform under Shilling

In his three years as state superintendent of schools, Joseph L. Shilling proposed a host of new ideas and moved forward with others recommended by a gubernatorial commission. Maryland's school reform plan at a glance:

* Extending the school year by 20 days -- shelved for lack of funds.

* Mandatory kindergarten -- approved this year to take effect 1992.

* A comprehensive new testing program -- began this month, will be expanded in 1992.

* Improvement grants to troubled schools -- deferred for lack of funds.

* Accreditation of schools -- under development.

* Raising the age for compulsory school attendance from 16 to 18 -- deferred by legislature.

* Tougher high school graduation requirements -- awaiting state board approval.

* Reorganizing the state Department of Education -- continuing, though a bill to shift responsibility for vocational rehabilitation and prison education to other state agencies failed this year in the legislature.

* Strengthening vocational/technical education with revised state guidelines -- under way.

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