Balto. Co. schools chief garners solid support


Joe A. Hairston says the job of school district superintendent can be "abusive." Constantly under a public microscope, you could be on your way out of a job in an instant if a majority of school board members turn against you.

But for now, at least, Hairston is on solid ground as Baltimore County's schools chief. Despite mild criticism of some of his personnel moves, many school and community leaders joined county school board members in crediting Hairston with raising academic standards.

This month, the 12-member school board is expected to renew his contract for four years and give him a raise.

Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community activist and chairwoman of Hairston's minority student achievement task force, will be happy to see the superintendent stay on. "He's been quite honest and carries a basic belief that education is about all children," she said.

Around the region and the country, suburban school superintendency is becoming a tenuous position.

A case in point is John R. O'Rourke, the Howard County superintendent who learned last month of his school board's plans to dismiss him. In the recent past, three other superintendents in suburban Baltimore school systems were ousted after serving fewer than three years.

Hairston, however, is enjoying a cordial relationship with a large board that generally avoids public bickering and supports his agenda.

"I don't want anybody to think it's a mutual admiration society, but we are professionals and we get along well," said board member Donald L. Arnold, who was president until last year. "We respect each other's opinion and listen to each other."

Board member Thomas G. Grzymski said he appreciates that Hairston immediately addresses any issue he raises.

Hairston describes his relationship with board members this way: "I like them, so it's easy to communicate. ... They respect that I have to be all things to all people."

Board members began talking about renewing Hairston's contract, which expires June 30, as early as February of last year, when his name was mentioned as a possible candidate to lead Prince George's County schools.

Jumping the gun

The board came under criticism after deciding in a May closed-door meeting to renew Hairston's contract. The state's Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled that the board violated Maryland's Open Meetings Act for failure to give public notice, take minutes and publish a record of the session at its next meeting.

Arnold said at the time that the board wanted to publicly show support for Hairston as he faced criticism for transferring many principals, forcing out others and demoting several school system officials.

State law requires school boards to reappoint incumbent superintendents between Feb. 1 and March 1 of the year in which a contract expires.

The board began work on Hairston's evaluation last week, said its president, James R. Sasiadek. Once it is complete, Sasiadek said, he expects the board and Hairston will hammer out the terms of a new contract, including a raise, that would take effect July 1. Hairston, 56, makes $185,400 a year.

Hairston said that what's left to be done is "a formality," adding, "It's just a matter of making it official."

Community activists say they appreciate the board's relationship with Hairston after seeing the panel endure a tumultuous relationship with a previous superintendent. The board ousted Stuart Berger in 1995, giving him a $300,000 buyout after three years marked by academic and fiscal disputes.

Hairston has not always had the best of relations with the school board to which he was reporting. In Clayton County, Ga., he resigned in January 2000 after a stormy tenure.

Under scrutiny

The quiet and introspective Hairston took the helm in Baltimore County in July 2000. He was the district's first African-American superintendent, and his community reception was not overly warm, he said.

"He probably, in all honesty, was scrutinized more than his predecessors," said Maggie Kennedy, chairwoman of the Baltimore County Education Coalition and the PTSA president at Dulaney High School.

Kennedy said Hairston proved himself. Working with him has been "delightful," she said. "When there are no hidden agendas, it's pretty easy to deal with someone."

Hairston has presided over the 108,000-student, 17,000-em- ployee district during a time of continuing, significant demographic changes. Black enrollment is rising, white enrollment is falling and the county is becoming increasingly urban.

Board members and community activists credit Hairston with raising academic expectations by eliminating low-level classes, using data as the driving force behind decisions and articulating the system's goals. They say he has helped the system to run uniformly, adopting a consistent curriculum for all schools to help students moving from one school to another.

Cheryl Bost, president of the county teachers union, said Hairston has instituted such a stringent accountability system at every level of his administration that it sometimes takes too long to get things done. Nonetheless, she praised Hairston for including an increase in salary and benefits for employees in this year's budget and said he has spent considerable time listening to teacher concerns about excessive paperwork and crowded classes.

PTA Council President Michael Franklin said the system has made "an enormous amount of progress" under Hairston. But he said he wants to see Hairston ensure that the most experienced teachers are evenly distributed, and not concentrated in affluent areas.

Looking ahead

Chief among Hairston's continuing challenges, he says, are building more schools to address growth and overcrowding, closing a persisting minority achievement gap and securing sufficient funding to adequately compensate staff.

He said he hopes the stability provided by his return will allow the system to build on the progress already made.

Campbell credits the superintendent with getting "the big picture drawn" over the past four years.

"Now we need to get in there and make sure all those parts are functioning," she said.

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