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New life in Montana, new hope for Carroll


IT'S NOT HARD to figure out why Bill Hyde escaped last month to Big Sky country, where he greets daily the 240 youngsters in the rural single-school district he now heads.

Montana's as far away and remote as possible for the beleaguered Carroll County superintendent who's now officially retired, thank goodness.

He left behind a school system racked by divisions in the community and on the school board, haunted by an ongoing grand jury probe, chastened by a critical outside investigation by Baltimore lawyers, burdened with lawsuits.

Not to mention a pattern of costly construction overruns, suspicious management decisions and an overlay of arrogance that doomed any chance of successful damage control.

Mr. Hyde had departed with a few souvenirs of his stormy two years here as schools chief. A couple of computers and a cell phone, which he said he'd return at his convenience when he returns later this month to Maryland, where his family remains. (The dearly departed then agreed to ship the items back sooner, after getting a testy phone call from Westminster.)

Of course, his convenience has been the paramount concern over the last few months, since he got that warm and fuzzy endorsement for a job well done from the insensate county school board. That was preliminary, you recall, to his receiving that 5 percent salary increase (to $119,000) from the grateful board.

A day later, without warning, the beleaguered Mr. Hyde decided to retire, ending 13 years as an administrator in the Carroll system after 21 years with the state education department.

Ostensibly, Mr. Hyde scheduled his retirement for Sept. 1 to allow a new superintendent to take the reins before Labor Day, while giving the departing chief ample time to help in the transition.

Never mind that his retirement date violated terms of his contract, requiring 120 days notice of leaving the job; he was 71 days short. The board voted for a generous farewell gift of lifetime health insurance, a hefty life insurance policy and lots of compensation for unused leave and sick days.

The eyes of board member Gary Bauer welled with tears at the public announcement of Mr. Hyde's retirement. That sadness was not shared by many others in the school system or in the community at large.

In fact, the Hyde retirement was a pragmatic response to the fact that three of the four candidates for two school board seats this November had called for his ouster. With outspoken Hyde critic Susan Krebs remaining on the board, that would likely mean a 3-2 majority for his firing.

As a lame duck, Mr. Hyde quickly dispensed some parting gifts to favored staff, reclassifying the jobs of about a dozen employees to give them substantial raises. Not promotions, he indignantly explained, but simply elevated job descriptions that were entitled to more money, from 8 to 10 percent more. No school board approval was needed for this unilateral act, nor was any sought.

Then Chuck Ecker was tapped as interim school superintendent and the torch was presumably ready to be passed gracefully.

Little did the school board know that Mr. Hyde was already preparing to beat a hasty retreat, packing up the electronics and starting a new job out in northwestern Montana two weeks before his Carroll contract expired.

His transition with Mr. Ecker consisted of a phone call and an e-mail. That's what Mr. Hyde apparently considered to be "full time, labor, skills and attention" devoted to the Carroll position while he was still drawing a salary.

This time, there was no report of mourning and misty eyes on the part of his faithful followers on the school board. In fact, they were said to be surprised by his secret shift of employment, even though they knew he was out of state and not working for the Carroll system.

Mr. Bauer, the board member who hurriedly mobilized a vote of confidence, and pay raise, for Mr. Hyde back in July, said then that it was a matter of bolstering school employee morale. He didn't have anything to say about staff morale last week after learning about Mr. Hyde's new job in Seeley Lake.

The school board is investigating whether Mr. Hyde broke his contract by starting the new job before his term ended last Friday. That could mean revoking or reducing his retirement benefits and final payout for unused sick days and vacation (about $147,000).

It would be the first time that this school board did any investigating of Mr. Hyde's conduct instead of covering up for him.

The sad part of the whole episode is that Mr. Hyde might have redeemed himself if he had adopted a more apologetic attitude over the past year. Especially since Carroll academic achievement did not suffer in his term.

The county never saw the "visionary educator" that board president C. Scott Stone praised. Nor did it witness a superintendent who "recognizes the need for a fiscally responsible school system that operates with business like efficiency," as Mr. Stone continued with his laudation of Mr. Hyde.

The system is better off with him gone, with a new superintendent and a new school board, with a new chance to improve staff morale after his tenure.

His graceless departure will not be without a valedictory, however. Bill Hyde's final statement on Carroll schools will be before the grand jury, when he testifies here later this month.

Mike Burns writes editorials for The Sun from Carroll County.

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