Carroll County Superintendent William H. Hyde's sudden decision to retire stunned parents, school board candidates and county officials, who said yesterday his departure is the first step toward regaining public trust and putting to rest more than a year of contention surrounding mismanaged building projects.
"All of what has happened isn't heaped on any one or two or even three persons' shoulders, but I know that when you're at the top, the buck stops there, and you have to take responsibility," said Jean Wasmer, president of the Carroll County Council of PTAs, which represents 21 of the county's schools.
On Thursday night, a day after receiving a vote of confidence from a majority of the five-member school board, Hyde announced he will retire Sept. 1. He made no mention of the issues that have shadowed his two-year tenure. Asked about his timing, Hyde, 59, would say only that "it seemed an appropriate time after 37 years [in education] to step down and explore other opportunities."
During his tenure, the 27,000-student system was immersed in an expensive contract dispute with the original builder of a Westminster elementary school and settled a lawsuit with a family whose driveway had been paved over by the school system with- out their permission.
As he leaves, the system is in the midst of a lawsuit stemming from the illegal construction of an $800,000 sewage treatment plant at a Union Bridge high school, and is under investigation by a grand jury for mismanagement.
"I think [Hyde's retirement] gives the system an opportunity to refocus all of our efforts and energy on what's happening with children," said Gary L. Dunkleberger, principal at North Carroll High School and a former assistant superintendent for instruction. "That's what we're about."
Hyde was in his office briefly yesterday morning and did not return telephone messages left at work or at his home.
The county commissioners, who allocate 50 percent of the county budget to the school system, said yesterday they were surprised by Hyde's decision to retire. They characterized his relationship with the Board of County Commissioners as open and honest.
"I know there's been a lot of controversy during his tenure, but I didn't have any idea he was planning to leave," said Commissioner Julia Walsh Gouge. "Of course, his decision is understandable. When people are this upset, it makes sense that he would feel more comfortable doing something else."
With three of four school board candidates in favor of Hyde's removal, his departure seemed inevitable. There also was a meager petition drive to oust the superintendent, Assistant Superintendent Vernon F. Smith Jr. and two school board members.
"The thing that has bothered me was that I wasn't hearing anybody take responsibility and that's what we drill into our kids - that they need to take responsibility," Wasmer said. "But I wasn't hearing that from the superintendent or even from the school board when the truth is that these problems happened while they were on the board and while they were in charge, so I'm glad to see this happen."
School board candidates echoed those sentiments. "I think Mr. Hyde did what was in the best interest of the school system, and it wasn't an easy decision to make, I bet," said Stephen M. Nevin of Finksburg , one of four candidates vying for two seats vacated by members who are not seeking re-election. "When the Titanic sinks, it was the captain's fault even though he wasn't up there looking at the ice cube. Mr. Hyde was the captain of this ship, this happened on his watch and he takes the blame."
Candidate Thomas G. Hiltz of Woodbine compared the situation to that of a $53 million company whose chief executive officer has been accused of mismanagement and withholding information from the board of directors.
"In that case, the CEO needs to go," he said. "It's the right move, and the appropriate move to restore the confidence of the stockholders. In this case, instead of a company we have a school system and instead of stockholders we have stakeholders whose children attend our schools."
But many, including candidate Susan Holt of Sykesville, acknowledged that the departure of one individual - albeit, the highest-ranking administrator - does not instantly remove the tarnish of a grand jury investigation and millions of dollars in cost overruns, lawsuit settlements and legal fees.
"As a board, we still have to come to resolution on the issues still in front of us," said board member Susan W. Krebs. "His resignation alone does not give us resolution. The problem is not just any one person, but to this day, the board has not even acknowledged that we have a problem - and that's our biggest problem."
The school system's legal trou- bles caused low morale among school employees, said Sharon Fischer, president of the Carroll Association of School Employees, which represents secretaries, clerks, licensed practical nurses and instructional assistants.
"Even though we weren't the people involved in the situations going on, you need to understand that everyone takes it very personal because they're proud of what they do and the system they work for, and a lot of that was gone," Fischer said. "It was evident that a change was needed and I hope [Hyde's retirement] is the first step in restoring the faith in central office and the school system from its employees and the community."
Sun staff writer Anne Haddad contributed to this article.