They were kept in the dark for months, then left hanging for a week as negotiations dragged on and the contract got immense. Finally, yesterday, just about anyone involved in education in Montgomery County--and that's a lot of very insistent people--got a first look at the new superintendent, Jerry Weast.
Some were effusive, after day-long meetings where Weast was part preacher, part talk-show host, part folksy storyteller. Others were wary. But all said they expect amazing things--and they expect them fast--from the man who, on Aug. 2, will become one of the highest-paid superintendents in the nation, making a base salary of $237,794.
"He's not going to have a honeymoon," said former school board member Roscoe Nix. "People will expect him to produce results quickly because he's getting such a high salary."
To the teachers, parents, community activists and business leaders invited to meet him, Weast made clear that his priorities are closing the troubling gap in achievement for African American and Hispanic students, improving teacher performance, revamping the cultures of a bureaucracy-laden system and fractious interest groups. Montgomery County schools, he said, must keep up with a changing world.
"Children in kindergarten are going to need a better education than the seniors graduating today," he said over and over. "Think of how much the world has changed in the last 10 years. You can't rest on your laurels. You've got to press on."
True to his word as a self-described change agent and decisive administrator, Weast spent all day Sunday talking with top staff members and choosing Steven G. Seleznow, a Harvard-trained educator, now an associate superintendent, to be his deputy.
Although his first hire is a white man, Weast said he is committed to making his senior staff reflect the diversity of the school system, which is nearly half minority. And he promised a "modified war room" in his office, where he will watch test scores and student performance like a hawk.
People are impatient to see whether this highly paid superintendent can make those scores rise, and how soon.
"Whereas I may have been willing to wait six months or so for changes, I'm expecting to see them much sooner," said school board member Beatrice B. Gordon (At Large). "I would have liked a different contract, but I'm pleased he's here."
After a tense week of negotiating, Weast, 51, is slated to sign a contract worth more than $300,000 a year. Current Superintendent Paul L. Vance's total compensation package is worth about $220,000. Weast will ink the deal after the Guilford County, N.C., school board releases him from his four-year contract at a meeting at 5:30 tonight.
But to some, Weast's salary was no distraction.
"If he can close the achievement gap, he'll be worth every penny," said Linna Barnes, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. "Especially if he comes up with a way to do that that can be used across the country."
"I like that he said he wants to be out in the field, visiting schools, rather than holed up in his office," said Samira Hussein, a community activist.
"When he talks about spending money on training and development, that's music to our ears," said Stephen D. Poor, president of the school system's service employees union.
Ed Trumbull, an official of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said he liked Weast's talk of involving the business community and using technology. "He's poised to do some really incredible things."
And John Hoven, who is generally critical of the school system, was enthusiastic: "Right now, the central office is the problem," he said. "He says he wants to change the culture. That's why I'm so hopeful about him."
Weast promised to make big changes in a system where "any one little bureaucrat can ruin your whole day."
"I've found that the central office has a lot of ability to block progress," he told one group, to nodding heads and a chorus of "mmmm hmmmms."
Some staff members say they're relieved that the long search for a superintendent is over but are anxious about just what kind of changes he'll make.
Weast told teachers to get ready to do their best and principals to foster the best learning environments, not to clog innovation.
Opinions of Weast are varied and often harsh in Guilford County, especially among teachers. Many resent not only his emphasis on test scores but also a controversial program he fostered that identified 120 "low performing" teachers and resulted in about half of them resigning, retiring or being fired.
Yet Mark Simon, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, praised what he called Weast's "wisdom."
"Nobody gets into the job to do anything but the best they can," Simon said. "From MCEA's perspective, teachers who are not doing a good job with kids should not be teaching. There's no disagreement on that."
Weast said his first order of business will be to get to know the system, and he told system employees not to think he was "snoopervising" but rather trying to learn what they do and how they do it.
Weast began the day with an hour-long meeting with Vance, who has reigned as superintendent for eight years. For his part, Vance said he was impressed by Weast: "a class act." And he bore no grudge that his successor would earn more each year than he did.
"I'm pleased that he's broken through and that a superintendent is finally getting what he deserves," Vance said. "He will earn every penny. Believe me."
CAPTION: Jerry Weast, who will take over in August as Montgomery County's school superintendent, will be among the best-paid superintendents in the country.