Anthony G. Marchione, who has brought calm to the Baltimore County schools after three years of tumultuous change, has emerged as a strong contender for the superintendency of the 102,000-student system.
The low-key interim superintendent is winning endorsements from school and county officials, teachers and many parents, thanks to his ability to dispense with controversies over the past seven months.
"There's a radically different mood in schools," says Raymond Suarez, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County.
"The climate has improved, the attitude has improved, the morale is improved."
One example of his ability to defuse conflict was his unprecedented two-tier school budget for 1996-1997.
By recognizing the county's income problems, he averted the type of budget battle that has often flared between school and county officials -- even though he's asking for a larger increase than that sought last year by ousted Superintendent Stuart Berger.
But the fall and winter have not been one long honeymoon.
Dr. Marchione, 64, had to impose budget cuts because of a $10 million shortfall.
He faced a scathing report on the lagging achievement of many black students and ensuing charges of racism within the schools.
And he inherited a controversy over the former Catonsville Junior High, which community members desperately want to become a middle school.
Now that he has decided to seek the $121,000 job -- for which he was also a candidate four years ago -- he faces opposition from black leaders who see him as part of a continuing problem of nonresponsiveness.
The veteran administrator, known for a firm hand, attentive ear and soft voice, also faces 23 other applicants.
Although he has the endorsement of the teachers association, County Councilman Vincent J. Gardina and many others, Dr. Marchione's future is uncertain.
The school board is maintaining its characteristic silence as it searches for a permanent replacement for Dr. Berger, whose contract was bought out nearly a year early for $300,000 -- almost three times his annual salary.
"The applicants are better qualified than four years ago," says board President Calvin Disney, one of four board members remaining from those who hired Dr. Berger in 1992.
About Dr. Marchione, Mr. Disney says, "It was pretty easy for him to pick up and keep going.
"I think I was pleasantly surprised by that. He has been open and tried to reach out to all groups."
With about six hours' notice, Dr. Marchione moved up from deputy superintendent, a job he had held for 12 years.
In his 40 years with the county schools, he has been a math and science teacher, a junior high assistant principal, a high school principal and an administrator.
"The surprise to me has been how demanding the job is, in terms of time," Dr. Marchione says.
"It just consumes 14 to 16 hours and it even goes into weekends. There are so many publics wanting your attention."
But Dr. Marchione has brought an interesting turn-around among them: Not long ago it was nearly impossible to find someone who would say nice things about the superintendent, now it's almost as tough to find someone who won't.
Supporters call him a peacemaker with a firm focus on classroom instruction.
"He has a very good, calming influence on the system. He's someone that I trust," says County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who made no secret of his distrust of Dr. Berger.
PTA Council President Elizabeth Crosby adds, "As parents are raising concerns, they are being addressed and not ignored."
Some have misgivings
But Dr. Marchione is not without detractors.
"It's still the same old stuff. The community is still not being
considered," says Patrycia E. Pickett, president of the Coalition of Concerned African American Organizations, which represents 35 county groups.
In December, the coalition listed its criteria for superintendent, criteria that would eliminate Dr. Marchione, though not necessarily favor a black nominee.
"I think we need someone who has not been in Baltimore County," says Ms. Pickett.
"Anyone who has been within the system will not get the support for the changes that need to be made."
She said the coalition is concerned because Dr. Marchione has held key positions for years, but black students are still overrepresented among students suspended and expelled, and underrepresented in advanced courses.
A report released last fall showed that black students, on average, continue to perform well below white youngsters, despite years of programs to close the gap.
More than good feelings
Although "bringing everyone together" is the first achievement Dr. Marchione cites in his tenure, there has been more than good feelings.
Just two days into the job, he removed from board consideration a proposed $5 million Educational Management Group Inc. contract that had raised ethical questions over the summer.
The technology firm had paid for dozens of trips to its Phoenix, Ariz., headquarters so teachers and administrators could become familiar with its products, which were being used in a few county schools.
Dr. Marchione cited the cost of the contract rather than the controversy surrounding it as the reason for his decision.
But within days he named an ethics committee to look into practices governing gifts and trips.
Reducing class sizes
Dr. Marchione also has made many key decisions related to instruction.
In next year's budget, he has asked for more teachers to reduce class size, especially in elementary schools.
"In kindergarten through second grade, we need to get back down to 20 to 24 students. That's where they need the teachers' attention," he says.
He has shifted staffing procedures so that each school can have a librarian, a reading specialist and art, music and physical education teachers without jeopardizing classroom positions.
And by enacting many of the recommendations of a student behavior committee, he has brought back an emphasis on discipline, says Mr. Suarez.
For the semester, "I'd give him an A," adds the TABCO president.
"And as a teacher, I was known as a tough grader."