A school bus ride into retirement


The square chalk letters splayed across the hillside at Baltimore County's school system headquarters said it all: "Thank you, Dr. Marchione."

About 300 teachers and administrators gathered yesterday in Towson to say goodbye to Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, who rode away from Greenwood in a school bus on the last day of his 45-year career with the county schools.

The send-off was a proud moment for Marchione, who decided as a senior at Kenwood High School that he wanted to be a teacher.

"Part of the reason I wanted to be a teacher was because school was fun, and I did well," said Marchione, 68, in a recent interview. "I wanted to do for other kids what teachers did for me."

In Marchione's career with the schools - he was a middle school math teacher, high school principal and deputy superintendent - the man has never lost sight of pupils.

"He is one of those people who believes to his core that public education is the most important institution in the United States," said former Superintendent Robert Y. Dubel. "He always thought we should have a model system."

To that end, Marchione has spent years mending bridges torn by racial, political or fiscal tensions. It's to his credit, supporters say, that the school system is where it is today: solidly financed and focused on student achievement and public accountability.

"We have been able to focus on what we need to do, and we have the support of the people who work in the system as well as the fiscal authorities and the community at large," said Marchione. "Having said that, there is still a lot to be done. ... Still, I feel like I am handing off the baton at full tilt, at full speed."

So far, the exchange has been a smooth one.

Marchione has met often with his successor, Joe A. Hairston. The men seem to agree on most points, including a strong emphasis on the basics: reading, writing and math. Hairston's first official day on the job will be Monday.

"Tony's contribution may not be that he fixed the world in five years," said Dunbar Brooks, a former Board of Education president. "But he can say that he positioned this school system to go on to something that is bigger and better in terms of some of the thornier issues. There's nowhere left to go."

In 1995, when Marchione took over the job, the nation's 25th largest school system was limping.

County officials had bought out a contract with Superintendent Stuart Berger, who angered politicians and parents with his management decisions and style. Reading scores on a state test were embarrassingly low. An achievement gap loomed between black and white students.

Everyone - from Gov. Parris N. Glendening to the County Council to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People - seemed to have a complaint.

Marchione had no choice but to organize a defense.

Instead of rushing to retool curriculum, he focused on the Department of Physical Facilities, which had been cmriticized for mismanaging a school renovation project and for doling out inappropriate work contracts.

Today, the trust is back. No longer do members of the County Council grill the superintendent for information. No longer does County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger feel the need to have a fiscal watchdog to ensure that the schools spend every tax dollar wisely.

Marchione "was a quiet, steady hand who helped to make a transition from a more turbulent era to one that was more conciliatory," said Councilman Kevin B. Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. "He was willing to cooperate with the county government in ways that past superintendents shunned."

Marchione reinstated dormant programs to teach principals to create responsible budgets that accounted for pupil needs such as textbooks, calculators and toilet paper. He circulated a reading list and encouraged administrators to be educational leaders and risk takers.

He also focused on strategic planning. Where past schools chiefs had signed off on "wish lists," he asked a committee of administrators, teachers and parents to root out problems and propose realistic solutions. The plan, which will require approval by Hairston and the Board of Education, is due this summer.

"Clearly, one of his legacies is that he got the system back on focus," said Brooks, who cast one of the two votes against making Marchione superintendent. "He inherited all of the fallout from the bad personnel decisions of the previous two administrations. His first couple of years were just bogged down with that. He had to calm the waters."

Public rifts on the mend, Marchione turned his attention to early childhood reading. He made sure that every school had a reading specialist and watched with pride as standardized test scores rose.

Marchione also vowed to close the achievement gap between black and white students and initiated a teacher mentor program to retain qualified staff members and train inexperienced ones at schools with predominantly black student populations.

He convened a committee to study the achievement problem two years ago and as a result, some elementary and middle school pupils receive extra tutoring in math and reading. High school students have received help preparing for the SAT, required by many colleges and universities for admission.

Throughout his career, Marchione has been credited with cooling racial tensions in the county.

While he was principal at Sparrows Point High School in the late 1960s, he invited African-American business professionals to visit the campus to defuse misconceptions.

While a Northwest Area superintendent, Marchione hired a human relations specialist to work with teachers and parents at Old Court Middle School in Randallstown, a predominantly white campus that had witnessed a surge of black enrollment in the 1970s.

"I saw him as someone who was sensitive to the needs of the community," said Emily Wolfson, a community activist from Randallstown.

"He showed leadership in a county that was very conservative," she said. "You have to remember, this was a Southern county, it had the cultural background of a Southern community regarding race relations. When someone came in who was more accepting, we saw him as a savior."

Although members of the county NAACP initially disapproved of hiring Marchione as superintendent, his tenure has had a powerful, "galvanizing" effect on the black community, said Brooks.

"In the whole context of things, we have moved much farther than where we were five years ago," he said.

At Marchione's retirement dinner on June 16, he said he'd miss his school system colleagues.

It's a sentiment that's heartfelt, he said later.

"The people I've interacted with here really have been special," said Marchione. "They're people who want to work with children."

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