- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2003

Parents and officials in Prince George's County are wondering why their school system, which ranks among the 20 largest in the country, has not attracted superintendent candidates with national name recognition.
Among the three finalists to replace school chief Iris T. Metts, herself a former education secretary for Delaware, are a big city superintendent who clashed with local politicians, an associate superintendent whose district has about 4,200 students and a superintendent from a Midwestern district that lacks the diversity and challenges of the 134,000-student school system of Prince George's County.
"I am not saying that I am disappointed, only that I thought we would have a finalist that would be from a larger district with comparable issues," said Howard Tutman, president of the County Council of PTAs.
"It's difficult to find a new superintendent, but in our case, it's critical that we don't just bring someone in that is qualified, but someone extraordinary," said former Delegate Rushern L. Baker, a county Democrat who has led efforts to reform the school system. "Everything depends on it whether people remain in the county or not."
Education experts say Prince George's County isn't alone in its dilemma, as large school systems have experienced a national shortage of candidates willing and able to take on the responsibilities of school superintendents.
Having to deal with politically charged school boards and county councils has discouraged many talented educators from applying for superintendent jobs, especially large urban ones, school officials said.
"There is no shortage of people with the paper credentials. … There is a shortage of people who want the job. It has clearly become unattractive," Paul Houston, executive director of the Arlington-based American Association of School Administrators, said in a 2000 interview with The Washington Times.
Prince George's County's school system presents a unique challenge to a superintendent, considering its turbulent history of mismanagement by the elected school board and political involvement by county and state agencies. Meanwhile, county students have continued to post low scores on standardized tests and county schools have remained overcrowded.
Mr. Baker last year led the initiative that brought upon the ouster of the elected school board and the superintendent. A temporary appointed board has been installed, and Mrs. Metts, the former superintendent, was hired to serve as the system's chief executive officer for one year.
He said the school board should not rush to hire a new schools chief if its candidates lack the gravitas to realize reforms.
"My gut reaction is that whoever [is hired] has to immediately make an impact," said Mr. Baker. "The name has to make people stand up and notice. These candidates don't do that."
The candidates Barbara Moore Pulliam of St. Louis Park, Minn.; Andre J. Hornsby, formerly of Yonkers, N.Y.; and John J. Keegan Jr. of Sioux Falls, S.D. each met parents and officials during a three-day introduction last week.
"I would have hoped for more candidates to choose from," said County Council member Thomas Hendershot, a former school board member. "The three candidates themselves seem to be well-qualified people. But two out of three had labor-relations problems, and one was terminated from their position."
Mr. Hendershot, New Carrollton Democrat, said the school board culled its finalists from about two dozen applications, noting that the previous school board had received three times that number of applications. He also expressed concern over Mr. Hornsby and Mr. Keegan's rocky relationships with teachers unions.
During a community meeting on Thursday, parents expressed tepid support at best for the candidates, asking recruiters if they "would send such candidates to [wealthier] Montgomery County," according to one county official that attended.
"They didn't answer the question," the official said.
School districts such as Montgomery and Fairfax counties attracted candidates with national name recognition before the national shortage in superintendents began at the beginning of the decade. Both counties rank in the 20 largest school systems with Prince George's County.
Fairfax County schools Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech was a renowned school administrator from New York, having run a Long Island school district comparable in size and diversity with Fairfax County's. Fairfax officials hired him in 1997.
Montgomery County schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast led the Guilford County, N.C., school district, about half the size of Montgomery County. But he had received national recognition for revamping early childhood education and poor-performing schools, raising test scores and increasing accountability in a racially diverse district. Montgomery officials hired him in 1999.
Affluent Anne Arundel County, Md., whose 75,000-student school district is the country's 41st largest, attracted a nationally recognized reformer for superintendent. Officials last year hired Eric J. Smith, who received national praise for raising academic achievement and reducing minority-white achievement gaps in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school system.
Prince George's County's longstanding problems and politicized environment may not be enticing to would-be school chiefs, some said.
"The turmoil of the past year or two would not have been attractive to prospective candidates," said Mr. Hendershot. "The fact that the incumbent [Mrs. Metts] was a candidate until recently may have discouraged others from applying.
"Still, we are the 18th largest school district with substantial opportunity for ambitious individuals. I would think those people would be anxious to participate," he said.
Regardless, some members of the community are pleased with the finalists after the three days of interviews.
Parent activist Joan Roache said she liked one of the candidates and that "people are not going to like everything about every candidate."
"It is a mistake to say that we should only look at candidates from large school districts," she said. "Most start small and work their way up. And they do the same thing in small districts they will in large ones."
Some said they were impressed by Mrs. Pulliam and felt certain she would be selected.
One issue is whether the board will choose from these three candidates or select another the application process is still open.
School board President Beatrice Tignor said the board may still search for a candidate, but another board member said privately that the superintendent will emerge from the three finalists.
"Basically, I feel have selected three outstanding finalists. I am very comfortable with the candidates," said Mrs. Tignor. "Prince George's has such a large population. We are not going to find that many people with experience in a large school district. Also, they have been in top positions in larger school districts, in larger and minority diverse areas. You don't look at just current experience."
Mr. Baker disagreed.
"I heard in Annapolis that there is nothing wrong with these folks, that there is nothing real controversial about them," he said. "Those are not the comments we need to be hearing. Instead, people should be saying 'Oh, wow.'"

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