washingtonpost.com
Schools Chief Faces Staff Vacancies
Key Department Heads Have Left Pr. George's

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

Nearly a year into his tenure as head of Maryland's second-largest school system, Prince George's County School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. is searching for lieutenants to execute his strategy.

The executive cabinet of his predecessor, John E. Deasy, has largely scattered. Since Hite was chosen as interim superintendent in December and then as Deasy's permanent successor in April, the heads of academics, accountability, human resources, student services and communications have left the school system. At least two others have applied for publicly posted jobs in other systems.

Hite said that acting officials had filled all of the positions and that he hoped to have them permanently filled within 30 days. Asked whether the departures would hinder his ability to run a school system of 130,000 students and 15,000 employees, Hite said they would not.

"I said when John left how it's about the work we have begun here in Prince George's County, and it has to remain about the work," Hite said. "As people exit, that can't actually define our ability to continue to work. . . . That work must continue."

Hite has had a tough introduction to the difficulties of running a large school system that is trying to free itself from state-mandated corrective action and stay afloat financially. He took over during a recession that has hurt education budgets across the country. He has overseen much-debated plans to eliminate hundreds of jobs, close schools and redraw boundaries to solve problems with crowded classrooms and under-enrollment.

But these initiatives were largely executed by his predecessor's staff. When swine flu hit the school system in the spring, communications chief John White was in front of the cameras. He is now a press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. Derek Mitchell, who worked out the technicalities of the complex plan to redraw the boundaries of dozens of schools, left in May for a job on the West Coast. Betty Despenza-Green, a longtime educator who had a number of responsibilities, including student athletics and the homeless education program, retired in August.

Hite declined to comment on the departures of two other top officials, human resources director Nikki Knighton and accountability chief Donna Muncey, saying they were "personnel-related."

Of the others who were hired away, he said he was pleased. "I think that is a tremendous statement about the caliber of individuals who are working at Prince George's County" public schools, he said.

Some said the changes were needed to allow Hite to surround himself with staff members who support his agenda and goals.

"I think the people that left or were asked to leave, however they left here, needed to go anyway," said Doris A. Reed, executive director of the Association of Supervisory and Administrative School Personnel, the union that represents Prince George's administrators. "I said to Dr. Hite, 'You have people here who are loyal to John Deasy, not Bill Hite.' My view was, he needed to make changes. My main concern is he bring in the right people."

Nevertheless, the changes could contribute to the tumult in the system, Reed said. One example is the recent crisis in which 8,000 high school students arrived for the first day of school and found they didn't have class schedules.

"It destabilizes the system, because, you know, you have a new superintendent come in and everybody wants to make their mark," she said. "Every time you change administrations, you throw the schools into chaos."

The reasons for the departures are varied and sometimes opaque. Former officials contacted for this report declined to talk on the record about their reasons for leaving, saying they did not want to damage professional relationships in the small community of high-level education administrators.

The general consensus was that the "churn," as some described it, was a common byproduct of changes in leadership -- aggravated by the constant turnover in Prince George's, which has had five superintendents in the past decade -- rather than a reflection on Hite's management.

"The reality is, that's pretty much what every superintendent does," a former official said. "I don't think the system is going to miss a beat, to be honest with you . . . Bill doesn't have a malicious bone in his body."

"Change in superintendents comes hand-in-hand with changes in other positions," said school board member Donna Hathaway Beck (At Large), who said the transition was no different from what had happened with Iris T. Metts and Andre J. Hornsby, two schools chiefs who preceded Deasy and also had a lot of turnover. "How is this different than past superintendents?" she asked.

But another former official described a feeling of burnout.

"Despite everyone's good intentions, superintendent after superintendent hasn't been able to reach into the organization in a way that connects with their employees at every level . . . or to change the way the organization operates," said a former senior official who reported feeling "disillusioned with the school system and with public education in America."

Hite said the changes were part of the overall shrinkage of the school system's staff, as well as part of a broader reorganization of his cabinet.

"We had 30-plus people on cabinet" three years ago, when Hite arrived in Prince George's as Deasy's deputy, "and now I want to say that number is 14 or 15," he said.

The student services position has been filled, Hite said, and acting officials are in the others, some of which have been combined, if only temporarily. Matthew E. Stanski, the chief financial officer, is the acting head of human resources. The academics and accountability offices are being combined. Hite also said he is looking to hire a chief of staff to oversee operations and keep track of measures of success.

"One of the points I need to make here is this happens a lot in large systems," Hite said. "I've seen organizations where the whole team has changed. The entire cabinet has changed. And that's not the case here. There are a lot of individuals on the cabinet who have served the county for many years, and who are still here and have the expertise to do that work."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company