When parents of children at Charles Carroll Elementary School get a new principal, the first question they ask is: "How long will this one stay?"
"My son is in fifth grade, and this is his third principal," said Phyllis Smith, who has two children at the school.
Some parents are discouraged by the turnover rate for principals at their small school, but school officials say that a strong teaching staff and active parents are making sure the school's goals remain consistent.
The newest principal is Richard Huss, appointed over the summer after being assistant principal at Manchester Elementary School. He replaced Robert Bruce, who had been at Charles Carroll two years before he sought a transfer to Manchester as the principal. Before Mr. Bruce, Pamela Ayres had been principal for three years. Bonnie Ferrier was there for one year before that.
Ms. Ferrier replaced a real long-timer, however. Shirley Hayes retired in 1987 after 11 years at the school.
"It's a small school, which means as positions at larger schools open up, principals can ask for consideration for them," said Superintendent R. Edward Shilling. "Bob [Bruce] is an exceptional principal, no question about it."
Mr. Shilling said that he doesn't think it fair to -- in effect -- punish good administrators by denying them promotions. However, he said he has discussed the issue of stability at the school with Mr. Huss.
Because Mr. Bruce was such a popular principal, with such a short tenure, his transfer brought the issue to a head, said Rainey Taylor, president of the school's Parent-Teacher Association.
"He's a hard act to follow," Mrs. Taylor said. "But Mr. Huss has done a wonderful job."
Parents believe the school has become a stepping stone for assistant principals to get a few years of experience as a principal and move on to a bigger school with more challenges and more pay. Principals are paid according to the size of the staff they supervise, and the difference can be $2,000 to $3,000 more a year.
Mrs. Taylor said she doesn't blame a principal for wanting to move on.
"I don't know a way around it. I would like to see a principal stay three years, if not five years," she said. "But I don't know a solution."
Mr. Bruce was aware of the parents' concerns about turnover "almost immediately." One of the first times he was introduced to a parent, he said, "Her response was 'Welcome to Carroll County. How long are you going to be here?' "
They ask Mr. Huss now. Sometimes the children ask him, Mr. Huss said.
Mr. Bruce's answer was that the length of time a principal stays isn't as important as "how much consistency is there going to be, regardless of who's here."
While he was there, he said, parents became more active in the school.
"I think they sensed that if the school is going to be strong, they need to be at the center," Mr. Bruce said. "The principal is a facilitator."
Both Mr. Bruce and Mr. Huss said there are advantages to not letting principals stay much longer than five years, to keep them fresh and to spread ideas around from school to school.
The contract the school board has with principals does not hold either side to any particular number of years. Mr. Shilling has the authority to transfer principals from one school to another
without the school board's approval.
Mr. Bruce said he thinks that the central office needs to have flexibility to reassign principals. And Mr. Shilling said principals should have the right to move ahead in their profession.
Manchester appealed to Mr. Bruce because of its larger staff and enrollment. Charles Carroll has about 400 students this year. Manchester has nearly twice that, at about 785.
Mrs. Smith said she doesn't expect principals to stay in one school their entire careers, but would like each one to give at least three years. Mrs. Taylor said it usually takes six months for parents to start to feel comfortable with a principal.
"I'm sure he'll do fine," Mrs. Smith said of Mr. Huss. "It's just he's a very different style from Bob Bruce."
She said that the differences are mostly "little" things, and different ways of carrying out the countywide school policies. Mr. Huss is more careful about how and when parents sign out
children for early dismissal for doctor appointments and other reasons, Mrs. Smith said.
Although the turnover means a new boss every few years for the teachers, fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Baker said the staff is unfazed.
"I think that's because we're so close," she said. "We are the school-- the parents, teachers and students. The principal is the guide. The principal can have an effect. But if the teachers are strong, nothing's going to stop them."
As co-chairwoman of the school-improvement team at Charles Carroll, Mrs. Baker said the goals for the school have remained consistent from principal to principal.
For example, teachers continue to work on areas where students did not score well on standardized tests. One such area is "writing to persuade," she said.
Mr. Huss said he plans to change little at the school, and hopes to stay long enough to see through his goal of improving on the technology in the school's new computer lab.
The lab, built inside three walls put up in the media center, will be open to students in a week or two. Mr. Huss wants to get more equipment to provide students with desktop publishing and other technology. The main goal is to improve students' writing, he said.
He can see himself staying three or five years, he said. He was at Manchester for three years as an assistant.
"My interest would be to start some dynamic things and see them through to completion," he said. "I'm sure not getting into this with the idea this is a short-term stopover."