Linton Deck Jr. sat in his airy second-floor office one day last month munching candy mints and assessing his 2 1/2 years as superintendent of the Fairfax County public school system: "There have been no traumas."
Last week there was a major trauma. Under pressure from the county school board, Deck resigned.
The decision to seek Deck's resignation was a surprising move for a school board that doesn't pull many surprises. That in itself was a strong indication of just how deep the rift had become between board members and Deck.
The 8-to-2 vote to request and accept Deck's resignation startled even some of his opponents. "There aren't enough members with enough guts to fire Deck," one board member observed just six weeks ago.
At the center of the board's decision was the politics of an appointed board that likes to consider itself nonpolitical. Even though school board members are not elected, they are appointed by county supervisors who are elected. And when supervisors start complaining, school board members listen.
"I told my school board member (Joy Korologos) that the board would have to get its act together or get a new administrator," said John F. Herrity, chairman of the board of supervisors. "We tolerated the problems too long."
Deck angered Herrity and other supervisors when he convinced the school board this year to approve a budget that called for large spending increases at a time other county agencies were being asked to make cuts. The proposed budget left supervisors in the politically unpopular position of reducing school spending in a county known to strongly support its public schools.
Supervisors, whose only legal control over the school system is to set its budget, also were miffed when Deck and the school board decided--without telling the supervisors--to threaten to charge tuition to children of military families at Fort Belvoir.
Deck's educational leadership, his intelligence and his dedication to his work were never questioned by school board members or supervisors. It was his explosive personality and what some called an offensive style that led the board to seek his resignation, with 2 1/2 years remaining in his four-year contract. (Deck had been superintendent for 2 1/2 years, but his first year was filling out the contract of former superintendent S. John Davis.)
"That's the critical checkpoint," school board member Toni M. Carney said in an interview before Deck resigned. "At what point does what's being accomplished far outweigh any sacrifices we might be making?"
After the resignation, another board member was more blunt: "Deck just wasn't a good politician. He wasn't political enough to be accurately reflecting the interests of the community. He was working in isolation from the opinion makers of the community."
The school board and supervisors are extremely sensitive to opinions of parents, taxpayers and community leaders in Fairfax County. With one of the highest property tax rates in the metropolitan area, taxpayers carry a heavy burden to operate the schools. In return, they expect a top-notch school system, responsive to their concerns.
In past months, one of those concerns has been Deck, and many citizens and local organizations have been critical of his performance.
Many parents were angry when their children were stranded late into the night after Deck decided not to close schools early during a blizzard. Many were infuriated at his handling of an athletic recruitment scandal that involved Mount Vernon High School. Most of all, many told school board members they felt Deck didn't care about their opinions.
"He plays to an influential elite in the county," said school board member Gerald A. Fill in an interview before Deck's resignation. "I'm not sure he's sensitive to the masses."
But to that elite and many others, Deck could be a charmer.
"He's a fantastic guy socially," said school board member Carmin Caputo. "He can tell jokes with the best of them. He's the kind of guy you would like to have come to your party."
A few weeks ago Deck spent an hour patiently answering questions from students at Orange Hunt Elementary School. After the session, a teacher approached him to note, "It's the consensus of all the little sixth grade girls that 'he's nice.' "
But board members said they saw the other side of Deck too often. The side that blew up at board meetings when members criticized a plan or a policy. The side that some said was intimidating to employes and condescending to parents.
"He has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality," Fill said in an earlier interview.
Board members admit they were warned about Deck's shortcomings when he was picked from among 104 applicants. As superintendent of the Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Fla., he was asked to resign by the board. He refused and bounced back eventually to be reappointed. But he continued to be criticized for what many termed his arrogance and poor relations with teachers and some school board members.
At the time, most Fairfax board members blamed Deck's problems on the elected, political Orange County board and assured themselves he wouldn't have those problems here.
"Now I'm not sure that we reached the right conclusion about the board in Florida," said Carney.
In their search for a superintendent 2 1/2 years ago, board members said they were looking for someone who was a forceful leader and who could control an escalating budget.
Some board members now say they may have underestimated the importance of a superintendent's personal style.
"We hope they get someone now who is a lot more humane in looking at individuals," said Marilyn Rogers, president of the Fairfax Education Association, which represents most county teachers.