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Balto. Co. schools chief making his mark quickly

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston unveiled his plan for reorganizing 30 of his top administrators last month, he did it without giving the school board much notice. Two hours, to be exact.

And the administrators affected by the plan? Hairston met individually with them before the board meeting but wouldn't tell them how their jobs might change. Those who were promoted and those who were demoted found out later - some at an assembly of 200 staff members.

Since taking over in July, Hairston has created a chief of staff position, moved 6,000 computers into schools and released a long-awaited report on low student achievement at Woodlawn High School - all with little or no notice.

On April 24, he presented his administrative restructuring plan a few hours before the regular school board meeting. Board members, with one abstention, approved it unanimously that night.

Episodes such as these have contributed to Hairston's reputation as a superintendent who acts quickly and without warning. And that, some critics say, has stifled debate on important issues.

"I think the reorganization was done swiftly, like the French guillotine, on purpose," said Meg O'Hare, chairwoman of the Northeast Area Educational Advisory Council. "I guess he figured that there wouldn't be any time for anyone to do anything. But what could you do? He is the one in charge."

But others say Hairston is feeling pressure - from politicians, the school board and the community - to reform the school system and make his mark quickly.

"He feels that he has to make a difference in these schools or he will tarnish his own reputation," said Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist. "I think he's realized that if he doesn't make some measurable changes and make those changes quickly, his goose is cooked."

In interviews with The Sun, Hairston said that he has "always been fair, almost to a fault." And he disagrees with the perception that he is impulsive or that he tries to keep staff and parents in the dark.

Hairston said he could have made immediate changes when he started last summer but waited to allow parents and administrators to get to know him.

"Now I have to wonder if I didn't wait too long," he said. "Maybe I gave people more time to dig their holes and undermine me."

Regardless of his motives, Hairston's management style has raised some concerns - not only because of his tendency to launch major initiatives with little notice, but also because of complaints that he treats subordinates harshly. Two school board members said those issues are likely to be raised in his annual evaluation.

Board member John A. Hayden, who abstained from the April 24 vote because he wanted more time to study the reorganization plan, wants Hairston to provide more information sooner to parents and administrators.

"It is my hope that the superintendent will include the public in our decision-making processes as much as is reasonably possible," Hayden said. "The more inclusive we are the better off we will be in the long run."

School board President Donald L. Arnold said that he has heard complaints about the way Hairston treats his staff but that he has no reason to believe the superintendent isn't fair.

"Sometimes when people are addressed by the head of the unit and they don't like what they hear, they say they were yelled at," Arnold said. "I've asked Dr. Hairston about these complaints, and he gives me a completely different picture."

When Hairston, 53, took over the 107,000-student school system - the third largest in the state - he faced a number of pressing concerns. Woodlawn High parents were complaining about such issues as missing textbooks and inexperienced teachers. Schools lacked sufficient computers. Perhaps most important, the system was struggling to address a persistent achievement gap between black and white students.

"When I arrived, I realized that this was not a typical situation," Hairston said recently at a dinner meeting with parents. "I realized that it would be impossible for me to just walk in to this school system and move forward."

Hairston recognizes that not all students get the same quality education and wants to do something about it.

"Nine high schools in this system carry the SAT scores for the rest of the system," Hairston said. "Compare our flagship high schools with the others and the SAT scores at those other schools are at least 100 points behind."

Hairston wants to strike a balance at the school system's headquarters in Towson, too. His reorganization is a first step. He said he wants to help employees achieve new career heights.

Patricia A. Foerster, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association and a Baltimore County teacher for three decades, said educators expect Hairston to improve the system's reputation.

"Those who have been around as long as I have know that the school system was considered a premier system across the nation," Foerster said. "In some ways, folks think some parts of that reputation have been tarnished. Dr. Hairston has it on his agenda to bring all that back."

Expecting results

School board members say they haven't put undue pressure on Hairston but that they do expect results. They deny that his sudden initiatives present a problem, and they chalk up his actions to a desire to help children succeed.

"We all wish to move forward in encouraging and improving the student achievement throughout the school system," said board member Jean M. H. Jung. "I think there is a concerted effort to move with deliberate speed."

Politicians are eager for results, too. For years, state legislators and county officials have demanded more fiscal accountability from the school system. They believe they'll get it from Hairston.

"In the political arena, people are happy that the streamlining is going to result in significant savings," said state Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who taught social studies at Kenwood High School for 30 years. "I think he is confident and gutsy, and I think he realizes that time is not on his side." "I only view the reorganization as a way for Hairston to be more accountable to me and to the rest of the elected officials," said County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz, a Pikesville-Randallstown Democrat. "Could it have been done in a kinder, gentler way? Maybe. But that's for the board to decide."

But Hairston's ambitious agenda for reform could falter if he fails to inspire trust in the people he needs most: administrators, principals and teachers.

So far, they give Hairston's management style mixed reviews.

While some administrators say the superintendent is supportive, others brand him a bully who cuts them down in front of colleagues and excludes them from key meetings. And neither supporters nor critics will be quoted by name, saying they fear retaliation for talking to the news media about their boss.

"It's a very different style than what people are used to," said an administrator who has worked for the system for about three decades. "We used to discuss issues with the superintendent when they came up, but now there's not much information shared. It raises concerns."

The administrator said that Hairston can be mean to staff members. "He berates people and doesn't give them a chance to explain themselves. ... It's upsetting for many people."

At his previous job as superintendent in Clayton County, Ga., Hairston was known for being tough on his administrative staff and keeping information to himself.

"Maybe you need to talk to a psychologist about what makes a person a bully, but he does have that ... mentality," said Joy Cavin, a former school board member in Clayton County, where Hairston was superintendent for five years. "He doesn't pat people on the back very often."

In Baltimore County, Hairston keeps close counsel. After he succeeded former Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione, Hairston never called him for background information or advice.

"I got all that from him before he left," said Hairston, who confers regularly with Deputy Superintendent Christine M. Johns and Chief of Staff Merle J. Audette - both of whom he hired from outside the system - but with few others.

Some administrators say they appreciate Hairston's no-nonsense style. They say that he stresses competence over political connections and that those who complain about harsh treatment are simply afraid they will have to work harder.

"He stresses demonstrated skills," said an administrator who has been with the county schools for more than 25 years. "It is not about who you know but what you know and can you do the job. In the past, it was always who you knew. ... People had these godfathers and godmothers who helped them get the positions they wanted."

'Still shellshocked'

But even administrators who support Hairston say they are troubled by the way he told people how they would be affected by the reorganization.

"Many people are still shellshocked about that," said an administrator who attended the meeting when job changes were announced. "It's not the way you treat people who have dedicated their lives to a school system."

Arnold, the board's president, said that if administrators are looking to Hairston to "be their buddy, that is not his role."

"Based on the information that he can substantiate, he seems to be fair to me," Arnold said. "But do all people think he is fair? No."

Hairston's closest professional mentor is former Prince George's County Superintendent John A. Murphy, an education consultant in Florida. Murphy promoted Hairston to leadership positions, including principal of a large high school and area superintendent in Prince George's.

Murphy, who speaks with Hairston often, said the Baltimore County educator holds himself to high standards.

"Joe is the kind of perfectionist who will bring pressure to himself," Murphy said. "He wants to do what is best for children in Baltimore County.

He inherited a relatively good system but wants to look at it critically and to make it better."

At a meeting with a small group of parents in Timonium recently, Hairston offered insight into how he approaches his job.

He told the parents that the pressure he felt to announce the administrative shake-up sooner rather than later was "based on the question of, 'How much longer will you examine the school system before you do something?' There was a great anticipation. People were saying, 'It's about time to do something.'"

If he's successful in his efforts at reform, some say Hairston could achieve national prominence.

Said Murphy: "He's at the forefront of the education field and he's creating a model in Baltimore County that people will want to take a look at."

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