Hairston says he doesn't plan to seek another contract

Jobs and WorkplaceJustice SystemLaws and LegislationKevin KamenetzOcean CityJoe A. HairstonHoward County

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said Thursday that he does not plan to seek another contract when his current four-year deal expires in June.

"I have always said that I would not seek another term," Hairston wrote in an email to The Baltimore Sun. "Twelve years is a tremendous run for any superintendent."

Hairston has been superintendent of the 26th-largest school district in the country since 2000.

School board President Lawrence Schmidt said Hairston has not informed the board of his decision. "Dr. Hairston has not called me," he said. Schmidt said Hairston may have sent a letter to the board that he has not yet received, because the board is at a conference in Ocean City and Hairston is in Portland, Ore.

The school board will begin the process of finding a new superintendent immediately. Schmidt said he will appoint a subcommittee of the board to outline the steps it will take in its search, including such details as the cost of hiring a search firm. The subcommittee will report back in 30 days, he said.

Schmidt would not say whether the board offered Hairston another contract, calling it a personnel issue.

In the past two years, Hairston has come under criticism from some parents, lawmakers and teachers over what they perceive as a lack of transparency and responsiveness.

Although county school employees have been speculating for months about when Hairston might announce a decision about an extension, the news that his tenure would end in June was not unexpected. Hairston told The Baltimore Sun last year that he was unlikely to seek another term.

But his imminent departure leaves a prominent void looming atop one of Maryland's largest school systems, and it means Hairston will finish out the school year as a lame-duck superintendent, without the imprimatur of incumbency.

The search to replace him comes at a time of great turnover in Maryland's education leadership. Nearly half of the superintendencies in the state have recently turned over or will soon. Searches are being conducted for school superintendents for the state and for Howard County.

"I have not received any formal or informal notification," Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said of Hairston. "For an individual who has such an emotional and professional investment in the school system, I suspect it is a very difficult time."

Kamenetz said if Hairston chooses to move on, he can do so "knowing his accomplishments are spectacular." He said he would expect the school board to do a national search that "will include the views of teachers, parents and the public as a whole."

Hairston made his comments in response to an email from The Sun asking about his plans. He did not respond to subsequent emails seeking more details.

Under Maryland law, superintendents must notify their boards by Feb. 1 whether they intend to seek another term. However, superintendent searches can take many months, so the earlier Hairston made an announcement, the longer the board would have to find a replacement.

Schmidt said he was grateful that Hairston didn't wait until February but spoke up at this time so that the school board would have time "to do a complete search."

"I think the board appreciates his service. He is leaving BCPS a better place than when he found it 12 years ago," Schmidt said.

School board member George Moniodis said: "I enjoyed him. I admired him."

Hairston, who makes $307,000 a year, will have served three terms, an exceedingly long tenure for most superintendents around the nation. He has been superintendent for an entire generation of students: Hairston entered the system when today's seniors were in kindergarten. But sources within the school system said that while he still had some support on the board, other members believed it was time for a change.

Hairston is viewed by many teachers and administrators as a complex figure who has provided a steady hand but doesn't take criticism well.

He has guided the system through significant demographic shifts, as city residents and immigrants came to the county looking for better schools and neighborhoods. Much of the system is seen as running efficiently, and parents express satisfaction with the education their children are receiving.

One of his long-standing core beliefs is that struggling schools will improve only if students are held to the same standards as those in the best schools, and that every student deserves a quality education. He often says, "All means all." Hairston invested heavily in getting more Advanced Placement courses into schools and encouraged average students into higher level courses.

But questions have been raised recently about Hairston's management of the system.

Del. Steve Lafferty, a Baltimore County Democrat, said that "overall, the school system has succeeded and grown and improved under [Hairston]."

"At the same time, he did not exhibit the kind of openness and responsiveness to the community criticisms and concerns that he needed to during his tenure," Lafferty said.

Lafferty added that Hairston "engendered a lot of hostility, and perhaps it detracts from some of his achievements."

Recently, some parents, lawmakers and county residents were angry about the lack of preparation to deal with overcrowding at elementary schools along the York Road corridor from the city line to the Pennsylvania line, and protested a rule that kept school buildings from being used as often by the public.

And he was twice summoned to Annapolis by lawmakers, who in one instance had received a deluge of letters from teachers and constituents angry about several issues. Hairston tried to institute a computer grading system, called the Articulated Instruction Module, which an employee had created on pen and paper and copyrighted. But teachers complained and he backed away from the idea.

Hairston forged a strong relationship with teachers but lost their trust over time. Recently, that tension was exacerbated by Hairston's decision to not fill nearly 200 vacant teaching positions, which came amid the hiring of a $219,000-a-year administrator.

In a profile in The Baltimore Sun last year, Hairston spoke often about the difficulties of a superintendent's life — the weeks spent negotiating with adults instead of thinking about children, the decisions that will invite blame no matter what, the schedule that has him at legislative hearings early and awards banquets late.

He said he regarded himself as the calm eye at the center of a perpetual storm.

Of the decisions that have come to define his tenure, the superintendent said he did not apologize for his approach, asserting that he made tough decisions through personal reflection. "I'm not someone who's going to call for advice all the time," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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