A day after receiving a vote of confidence from the Carroll County school board, Superintendent William H. Hyde announced his retirement, leaving a school system being investigated by a grand jury and struggling to rebuild public trust.
During a five-minute statement read last night at a hastily called school board meeting, he made no mention of the problems that have troubled his school system in the wake of an internal investigation into bungled school construction projects.
Those problems have cost the school system millions of dollars in overruns, lawsuit settlements and legal fees.
School board members expressed surprise and understanding at Hyde's decision to retire early, alluding to his likely ouster.
"Most of us can understand, probably, why you've made this step and it grieves me that you had to make it," said board member Joseph D. Mish.
"It's too bad that all of this had to happen, but I understand your reluctance to go into a school year and cause the system to have to change superintendents, perhaps, in the middle of the year, which would be detrimental to learning and to the students."
Although four of the five school board members have been largely supportive of Hyde and his administration - some critics have accused the board of rubber-stamping the superintendent's recommendations - two long-time board members whose terms expire this year are not seeking re-election.
Three of the four candidates vying for those seats - Thomas G. Hiltz, Susan Holt and Stephen M. Nevin - have said they'd initiate termination proceedings against Hyde if elected.
Holt and Nevin are allies of reform-minded board member Susan Krebs, who has spent much of her rookie term questioning staff decisions and has openly expressed her lack of confidence in Hyde's leadership.
A new board - if it included Krebs and any two of the three candidates - could muster a majority to fire the superintendent in January.
"I know this wasn't politically pleasant," said board member Gary Bauer, his voice breaking with emotion. "It didn't look good for you. And I know you didn't want to hurt the system."
Several of the few dozen school employees at the meeting wept as board members thanked the superintendent for his 13 years of service in the Carroll school system. Hyde was appointed superintendent two years ago.
Despite his short tenure, Hyde is credited with bringing the Baldrige Criteria - a performance standard fueled by data collection and used by many corporations - into the classroom.
Board members described him as an accessible, hard-working superintendent who often could be found in the office well before and long after regular working hours.
Mish also thanked Hyde for resigning rather than being forced out, which would have made him eligible for the remaining two years of his $118,965 annual salary and a wide array of benefits.
"I, for one, am sure that you know you could have hired yourself a high-priced lawyer and fought this thing right through and gotten a tremendous settlement at the expense of the taxpayers of Carroll County," he said, "and I want to thank you and honor you for not pursuing that."
Speaking after the meeting, board member Ann M. Ballard said she thought Hyde was motivated by his concern for the school system.
"The focus has been on the investigations and not on the good things going on within the system," she said. "I'm sure that he feels the weight of the world is off his shoulders and I think with his departure, the focus will go back on the students."
Unsettled issues remain.
A grand jury investigation begun in May 1999 as an inquiry into construction mismanagement - including a wastewater treatment plant built illegally without state permits - has expanded into a probe of possible kickback schemes and thefts and overall mismanagement of a school system that consumes half of the county's annual budget.
Carroll State's Attorney Jerry F. Barnes said last night that Hyde's retirement does not at all affect that investigation.
"The grand jury will continue to move forward at an accelerated rate, meeting at least - at least - twice a month," he said. "We've talked to a lot of people, and we have a lot more people to talk to."
A local government accountability group collected 3,800 signatures on two petitions demanding the removal of Hyde, his assistant superintendent for administration and two school board members.
The petitions were presented to the county commissioners yesterday morning.
And in the months since the release of a 100-page report that documented "consistent failures" in the handling of school construction, residents and PTA members have implored the school board to discuss problems documented by investigators - chief among them, the actions of top administrators and other school personnel - and refocus attention on the system's 27,000 students.
As recently as two weeks ago, Hyde said he was "still very confident in my abilities."
On Wednesday, a majority of the school board echoed that confidence in a 4-1 vote reaffirming their commitment to honor the remaining two years of Hyde's employment contract. Only Krebs dissented.
Hyde, 59, didn't always have such problems.
Calling him a "visionary educator" expected to guide Carroll schools into the next century, the school board on June 10, 1998, enthusiastically welcomed Hyde as superintendent.
He replaced Brian L. Lockard, widely recognized as one of the most popular superintendents in Carroll.
Prior to coming to Carroll County, Hyde spent most of his career in education as an administrator, supervising finance, transportation, building and personnel departments.
The son of a coal miner and a homemaker, he grew up in the economically depressed Allegany County community of Frostburg.
He attended what is now Frostburg State University because of its tuition-waiver program. After getting his bachelor's degree in 1963, he taught history and English and coached football at Charles Carroll Junior High in Prince George's County for three years.
He returned to Frostburg to get a master's degree in counseling, and in 1966 he went to work for the state Department of Education as a vocational rehabilitation counselor for developmentally disabled children and adults.
Then his career, he has said, "simply spiraled into a series of administrative positions that led me back to local school systems."
In 1987, he moved his career to Westminster, where he and his wife, Pat, were raising three children, to work in Carroll schools.
After last night's meeting, the board immediately went into executive session to discuss the process of appointing an interim superintendent who would serve from Sept. 1 through June 30, 2001.