Parham rising to head of class Superintendent in Arundel known for shrewdness, toughness


She is the superintendent to watch these days.

Carol Sheffey Parham, at the helm of Anne Arundel County public schools, has the backing of the state superintendent of schools, kudos from at least two county executives and her peers, and critics who admire her strengths.

At a time when the nation's public school superintendent stay at one job for an average of about 2 1/2 years, Parham, who has held her post since 1993, is neither job-hunting nor being pushed out. Rather, she is viewed as a rising star, an intelligent woman with a deft, albeit sometimes heavy-handed, touch.

"She would be a very desirable person to get for a superintendent," says Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker, who was Parham's mentor when he was an administrator with the Howard schools. "I hear a lot of good things about her."

That sentiment is echoed by others, including superintendents in Montgomery and Howard counties, where school boards will be looking to replace retiring superintendents within four years.

Parham has been approached for jobs elsewhere -- she won't say where -- but she says flatly that she is not interested.

Her four-year appointment in the state's fifth-largest school district doesn't expire until 1998, and she intends to stay.

"I want to be here to complete the job I've started," she said in a recent interview.

Parham was plucked from an invisible position -- Arundel's director of human resources -- to become acting superintendent in 1993, in the midst of a much-publicized teacher-student sex scandal, and received a four-year contract in 1994.

Her admirers and critics agree that she is politically shrewd, articulate, personable and tough. And she makes it clear that she intends to get her way.

The employee who errs at board meetings can expect to be subjected to the vitriol of the board, followed by a few private words with Parham, who does not intend to be embarrassed by her staff.

"My experience with Dr. Parham is she feels personally responsible if something is not presented appropriately, if there is a quote unquote screw-up. Given that, she is going to get to the bottom of it," said Michael Raible, the former school construction chief.

Her background in the personnel departments in Howard and Anne Arundel counties could be the key.

"Remember what the personnel director is," says P. Tyson Bennett, attorney for the Anne Arundel school board. "The personnel director is by definition the corporate SOB."

Turmoil calmed

Neither school employees nor others who deal regularly with Parham would speak on the record about her management style.

Some say she makes more demands than her predecessors did, and some are feeling the heat. A number of longtime administrators have retired in the past 1 1/2 years, some gently forced out.

Nevertheless, Parham calmed the turmoil over sex scandals. The policies and jobs that state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick demanded are in place, some over virulent objections of employee unions and despite the County Council's refusal to give the schools money to pay for them.

When Van Bokkelen Elementary in Severn became the first school outside Baltimore to be threatened with state takeover because of abysmal 1995 test scores, Parham brought in a new principal, eased parental worries and presented what Grasmick hailed as a "model plan" to revamp the school.

Grasmick support

Nearly everyone in the school system expects Van Bokkelen's scores to go up when the results of the May 1996 Maryland School Performance Assessment Program exams are announced this winter, although some note that the scores were so low that they can't sink far.

The result is that Parham enjoys Grasmick's unqualified support.

"I admire her ability to handle the situations that are not necessarily the ones you sign up for when you become a superintendent," Grasmick said.

"You can't get any more politically connected," said former Arundel school board member JoAnn Tollenger. "If Nancy puts in a good word for you, who else do you need?"

Parham has a way of deflecting criticism that even her critics admire.

She has taken none of the blame for the troubled school construction division's errors and cost overruns. That fell on the division itself, and on the school board.

Good timing

And the timing of her proposal last month to privatize the division was impeccable.

The year that County Executive John G. Gary had given the schools to remedy construction woes before he would try to take over the division had nearly expired.

Meanwhile, Gary was unnerving board members with his four-member panel scrutinizing every construction angle.

Relieved school board members praised Parham's leadership.

At a forum in Annapolis in September, parents fumed over large classes. First, Parham told them she didn't have enough money to hire more teachers, which was not what they came to hear.

Then she told them, drawing applause, "If we are a turkey, we are your turkey. Either we are picked apart, and you have only a carcass left, or you work with us and help make us that nice fat Butterball we all want a part of."

'Aura of charisma'

"She does have an aura of charisma," says Montgomery County Superintendent Paul Vance.

Because only a third of county residents have children in public schools, the school system must broaden the circle of people who have a stake in it and hear more ideas, Parham said in an interview.

The eight forums she holds each year are part of a drive for more parental and community involvement that has brought parents, business executives and residents onto advisory and study groups for redistricting, year-round schooling, curriculum and more.

Incensed that the business community was helping schools elsewhere, Parham invited businesses to work with county schools, creating partnerships that bring money and resources, expertise and field trips to participating schools.

Critics say all of that is window dressing that does little to address issues.

Most parents informally withdrew from a beleaguered middle school study group, and parents who sat on earlier committees privately wonder whether they were invited just to appease them.

Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, who was Parham's boss from 1985 to 1989, said nobody should underestimate the value of cultivating a warm personal image and establishing credibility for a school system that was held up to ridicule on the television show "Geraldo!" in 1993, when former teacher Ronald Price discussed his sexual relations with students.

"If she doesn't address those kinds of things, it becomes that much harder to address the other, serious things," Hickey said.

Critics speak

Critics, however, say too many things have not been addressed.

"If I had my druthers, she would be out of there tomorrow," said Severna Park parent John Birkenheuer, who said Parham pays insufficient attention to educational quality.

Some other parents may agree, but last week, Expansion Management magazine ranked Anne Arundel schools 58th best in the nation.

The special-education budget is stretched thin, dropout rates have gone up, and middle school test scores have sagged, and parents say their children will graduate before the study group makes acceptable recommendations that can be implemented, Birkenheuer said.

The county has dropped from sixth to ninth in state test score rankings, although overall scores have gone up.

The Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County has said that Parham doesn't fight hard enough for more money for the education budget.

Secretaries and assistants say she has made them feel unappreciated.

Tougher disciplinary measures, which she initiated, have led to a disproportionate number of expulsions of black students. Some blacks have assailed Parham over that issue, but others say it reflects a national problem and a need to elicit more outside help for the students.

School board member Carlesa Finney said that kind of criticism is unfair, given that any school system with 72,000 students has problems. Parham is taking on issues, such as discipline, that nobody wanted to touch before, Finney said.

'Hard work ahead'

Parham says criticism on what she has not done is premature because she is only halfway through her term.

"I think it is valid to say we still have some hard work ahead of us. A number of things had not been delivered on when I came on board," Parham said.

Gary reserves heavy criticism for the school board but praises Parham.

"The school system has to have a strong superintendent," Gary said. "Anything she has asked me for that I have given her, she has lived up to." For example, Gary said he authorized money for a new computer technology program after an existing one failed, which he said Parham successfully restarted.

'Jury is still out'

Gary's chief administrator isn't as taken with Parham. "My personal opinion is that the jury is still out on Carol," said Robert Dvorak. "You can't count her rookie year, and she faced a rambunctious board for her second year. She now, however, has at least five board members who are supportive of her. The question is how, or will, she use the support to formulate an agenda."

But her supporters aren't always the same five members, and Parham says she has to assess board support on every issue.

Others say she should take advantage of that majority to deal from a position of strength. The school board, which went through three superintendents in the nine years before Parham took over, cannot send another one packing without giving itself a black eye, they say.

"She is there for the duration, however that is spelled out," said Vance, the Montgomery superintendent. "She is convinced that she is the right person."

Pub Date: 11/03/96

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