It’s clear the Baltimore County Public Schools community wants the system’s new leader to be a lot different from the current one.
In a series of public input sessions last week, parents, educators and other community members had an opportunity to say what they wanted in a new superintendent, but it was also a chance for them to critique the incumbent administration.
The superintendent should know what’s happening in classrooms, said Sharon Saroff, a special education advocate who attended one of the sessions. The current leadership, she said, “has absolutely no idea what’s going on in these schools.”
The public meetings were organized by McPherson and Jacobson LLC, the firm leading the search to replace Superintendent Darryl Williams after he leaves at the end of June. The firm will share the feedback to the board in April, and the new superintendent will be announced in May.
Top concerns varied at the three meetings a Baltimore Banner reporter attended: At the George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Towson, the risk of losing kids to private schools came up often; at New Town High School in Owings Mills, it was the need for equity; and at Hereford Middle School, it was teacher needs. But attendees at all three locations had strong opinions about grades, violence and overcrowding.
Here are the three kinds of leaders that Baltimore County schools community members said they wanted to see:
An accessible politician
The public wants to see its new superintendent hit the ground running on some persistent issues, like flagging student achievement, school violence and overcrowding. A way to do that, some say, is to think like a politician.
“I think that a superintendent needs to be a combination of a statesman and a politician,” said Dr. Bash Pharoan, former chair of the central area advisory committee, who spoke at Carver.
It’s because the job requires negotiating with and balancing the competing needs of the state government, the County Council, the county executive, the teachers union and the public, he said.
However, the job shouldn’t be treated as a stepping-stone, said Eileen Tron, who spoke at New Town High School in Owings Mills. And the new leader should face problems head-on. It should be someone “who does not go into hiding when the public asks hard questions.”
Autrese Thornton, a former school board candidate who spoke at New Town, suggested the new superintendent have more community town hall meetings.
A collaborator with teachers
Teachers said the superintendent should be a collaborator. Cindy Sexton, for instance, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, said the new leader should work with teachers on the school system’s budget.
Peter Dimitriades, a parent who spoke at Carver, said the county’s teachers who are “underfunded, undervalued and underappreciated.”
“I want to be heard,” Megan Gorkiewicz, who teaches at Hereford Middle School, said at her school’s cafeteria, where the third session was held.
Taylor Boren, a teacher at Logan Elementary School in Dundalk, said there’s been a “loss of trust” between the community and district leaders. She brought up pay errors caused by a ransomware attack that she said have not yet been fixed. She wants to see leaders rebuild authentic relationships.
Other educators in the room voiced a need for strong communication, more staffing, and a listener who allows staff to express their criticisms without a fear of retribution.
A substitute teacher who taught at the system for over 40 years said at Carver he can’t remember a superintendent who held an open forum for teachers to hear their complaints.
A champion for equity
Parents often talked about the pride they had in the public schools. They love the diversity, the teachers and the programs the system offers. What they don’t like are the low academic scores that place the county below other districts.
Parents feared it would lead to kids leaving the school system, moving out of the county or enrolling in a private school.
“It’s clear that our system must do better for our children,” said Patrick Taylor, speaking on behalf of County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., at Carver.
Speakers at the sessions blamed overcrowding and violence as a reason for the low scores while others blamed cellphones. People like Thornton said the lack of access to an equitable education is part of the issue. For example, there’s a lack of magnet schools on the west side of the county where a lot of Black students live, she said.
Helen Turner of Owings Mills, who is white, said she drives to Essex, more than 25 miles away, to take her kid to a magnet program at Chesapeake High School. “For some reason, it is not introduced on this side of town, and many people don’t even know about it,” she said.
Parents like former school board member Makeda Scott said at New Town, the new superintendent can’t use a “one-size-fits-all approach” to address issues like academics. That person has to lead equitably.