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The Superintendent and the Sore Losers


Bashing school superintendents is nothing new these days, but Carroll County's just-named superintendent, Brian Lockard, must have set a speed record for vilification.

At least two weeks before the county Board of Education made its selection, letters to the editor, calls to a newspaper's call-in line and even paid ads were directed against the then-unnamed superintendent.

He (or she) is overpaid and unqualified, the shrill critics charged. He is also suspect because the same members of the school board that signed R. Edward Shilling's last contract also selected him.

These charges and more were made by people who didn't have the foggiest idea who would ultimately be selected by the board. Something is wrong when people make such wild and premature judgments and then demand to be taken seriously. What is worse is when others in the community give credence to vicious and thinly veiled campaigns of character assassination.

Granted, Carroll's outgoing superintendent, Mr. Shilling, was not popular with this small, vocal group of Carroll residents. They didn't like the "Exit Outcomes" program of measuring student performance. They felt Mr. Shilling was overpaid. And they felt he manipulated the county school board into hewing to his agenda. But you have to question the motives of these dissidents when they are attacking a new superintendent before he had time to find his parking space, put his family pictures into his office and get new business cards printed.

One logical conclusion: They are poor losers.

This is the same group that tried, but failed, to organize a grass-roots campaign to prevent the school board from selecting a new superintendent. They argued that since this is an election year and the composition of the board may change after November, it would be inappropriate for this "lame duck" board to select Mr. Shilling's successor.

Their arguments were not persuasive. Few people rallied to their cause. The current board, which has every right to pick the superintendent, embarked on the selection process and ultimately chose Dr. Lockard, who has been the deputy superintendent of Carroll's schools.

Having failed to delay the selection of the school system's chief administrator, members of the group decided to try to discredit the new superintendent so he takes office under a cloud.

Because Dr. Lockard hasn't taken action in his capacity as superintendent and there is no basis to criticize his performance, the next best thing would be to smear him with the same charges that were leveled against his predecessor.

Mr. Shilling inadvertently provided ammunition for these attacks.

It is hard to ignore the fact that Mr. Shilling is leaving office with a lump-sum payment of about $95,000 in accumulated sick leave and unpaid vacation -- an amount that nearly equals his annual salary. Carroll taxpayers will also be paying for Mr. Shilling's $400,000 term life insurance policy until he reaches age 70. People have a right to be worked up about this extravagance, but their outrage is misdirected. You can't blame Mr. Shilling for asking. It was, after all, the county school board that accepted the terms of this contract and went along with his demands. Shame on the board if it turned around and gave the same terms to his successor.

We should not lose sight of the fact that when teachers and administrators retire, they also can cash out their unused sick leave and vacation pay. As a result, many retire with sizable lump sums -- $25,000 to $30,000 in cases of teachers with 30 years in the system. But those sums pale next to Mr. Shilling's.

Unfortunately, the propriety of these payments is lost in the overheated rhetoric about the new superintendent. Instead of focusing on the wisdom of the school system paying these large lump sums to retiring employees, the discussion has descended into a personal and abusive character assault.

Talk radio hosts have honed this type of broadside into a fine art to generate ratings. What works for talk radio blather doesn't carry over into public policy making, however. There are many legitimate issues deserving of public debate and discussion. But having an informed discussion about the Carroll County school superintendent's compensation package and other relevant education issues doesn't seem to be part of the critics' agenda.

Instead of assuming that these public officials are acting in good faith and are working for the public's interest, these critics cast all government officials in the worst possible light. This demonization doesn't add anything to the debate. It just drags important issues into the gutter.

Given the abusive nature of the critics' attacks, one can only assume their primary interest is to undermine the public's confidence in what has been one of Maryland's premier public school systems.

Why else would they have engaged in such a bare-knuckled attack without knowing whom it was they were attacking?

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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