The Baltimore County school board appears ready to renew Superintendent Joe A. Hairston's contract after hearing his name mentioned as a possible candidate to lead Prince George's County schools, where he worked for 25 years.
The county board, which has been drafting criteria for evaluating the superintendent, is indicating it wants to renew Hairston's contract more than a year before it expires.
"If it were voted on today it would be universal and unanimous to approve a new contract," said Donald L. Arnold, school board president.
Concern over Hairston's possible departure has run deep enough that Arnold said he has talked "numerous times" in the past two weeks with the superintendent.
Arnold said Hairston, 56, assured him that he would not leave unless the pay was irresistibly high, but Arnold and other board members acknowledged that Hairston would be "foolish" not to consider an offer from Prince George's County, which will pay an annual salary of $250,000.
Hairston acknowledged the allure of returning to Prince George's County, but he emphasized that he wanted to keep Baltimore County schools on the promising track he has set.
"I decided I wasn't going to throw my name in the hat," Hairston said in a recent interview. "If they were interested in me, I would wait and see if they contacted me."
This month, Prince George's County Superintendent Iris T. Metts said she will leave. Its school board is starting to review the applications of promising candidates to lead the nation's 19th-largest district.
Beatrice Tignor, chairwoman of the Prince George's school board who knows Hairston from their days working in the district, said she was "not aware" he had applied and she said he had not contacted her.
Robert O. Duncan, a board member, said Hairston's name wasn't on the list of applicants that he had seen recently.
"We'd love to have his hat in the ring. But there are lots of folks we'd love to have" in the running, Duncan said. "Some of these guys feel they ought not to apply. They feel that if they're asked, then they will get the job. Well, there is a process out there."
Other Prince George's County school board members also said Hairston should apply if he is interested in the job.
A former teacher, principal and assistant superintendent in Prince George's County, Hairston left in 1995 to lead the Clayton County, Ga., school system. In 2000, he took over Baltimore County's district, the nation's 23rd largest.
While critics complain Hairston hasn't moved decisively enough, supporters praise his updating of the system's technology, rising SAT scores and his efforts to bolster the education of the district's growing number of minority students.
"I'm on a pretty good roll with Baltimore County, and I want to see it through," Hairston said. He also said he "would prefer to continue my work here."
Rumors of his leaving for Prince George's County were "flattering," Hairston said, and "some people there would love to see me come back."
"I have an intuitive sense of what's got to be done there," said Hairston, whose success turning around Suitland High School in Prince George's prompted a visit from then-President Ronald Reagan.
The job description for chief executive officer of the Prince George's County schools lists a "bold reformer" with at least five years' experience in a similar system who has "excellent human relations skills and is sensitive" to the county's diversity.
In superintendent searches, potential candidates fitting a school board's criteria often are discreetly asked to apply.
"It can be phone calls, it can be letters, it can be contacts at conferences," said Marcia Tingey of Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, a firm in Glenview, Ill., which found Hairston for the superintendency of the Baltimore County schools.
The Maryland Association of Boards of Education is coordinating the Prince George's search. Carl Smith, the association's executive director, said it is quietly soliciting candidates.
But he said, "We do not recruit within the state of Maryland. That does not mean that somebody who is a sitting superintendent ... can't apply, but we couldn't be put in that position."
Hairston's current contract, which pays $180,000 a year, expires after next school year. That is a year shy of the 30 years he needs to get a full state pension, prompting parents to fear he would leave to ensure he gets a 30th year.
Baltimore County school board members, satisfied with Hairston for the most part, have been informally talking about renewing his contract.
"His main thing is he wants to be sure that he gets the contract renewed, and I don't see any problem of his contract being renewed," said Arnold, the school board president. He said the board would take up the matter in the summer.
Before deciding to leave for a job with a national education company, Metts had been planning to seek renewal of her four-year contract, which expires in June. Her tenure had been marked by turmoil, with the school board voting to fire her.
The situation deteriorated to the point that the General Assembly replaced the elected board with an appointed one.
Even with the new school board, the next superintendent will face heavy political pressures and unrealistic expectations of parents, said Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"You're talking about a monumental job of raising test scores in a short period of time, and it's simply not going to happen," Walters said.