They knew their teachers and principals unions were solidly against him. They knew some influential parents were leery of his personality. They knew he was fired from his job as a school superintendent in Yonkers, N.Y., after he publicly feuded with the mayor.
So why did Prince George's County school board members vote 8 to 1 Tuesday night to hire Andre J. Hornsby, 49, as their new chief executive, awarding him a four-year contract and a $250,000 annual salary?
Several board members said yesterday that they pushed aside questions about Hornsby's brash, sometimes headstrong manner for one overriding reason: He raised student performance in Yonkers, where the school system, like the one in Prince George's, has a large minority population, limited financial resources and a reputation for rough-and-tumble politics.
"The major issue is that we need someone who can find the underlying problems of student performance and focus on that," said board member Dean Sirjue (Bowie). "Everything else will fall in line."
Prince George's students have ranked second to last on most state and national standardized tests in recent years, ahead of only Baltimore, despite efforts by the board and outgoing schools chief Iris T. Metts to introduce all-day kindergarten, mandatory summer school, smaller class sizes and other initiatives.
"We're on the verge of being the least-functional school system in the state of Maryland," said board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel). "We've got to find a way to make dramatic improvements now."
In Yonkers, where he was superintendent for two years, Hornsby did just that.
For the 1999-2000 school year, 12 Yonkers elementary schools were cited on New York state's "most-improved" list, based on standardized test scores of fourth-grade English students. For math, six of the 13 schools on the most-improved list were from Yonkers.
"This definitely reflects Hornsby's work," said New York state education spokesman Bill Hirschen. "He was very focused on student achievement . . . and got the job done."
But in a county as politically volatile as Prince George's, winning over local officials, state lawmakers, teachers, principals and parents is often as important as producing results in the classrooms. For that reason, the school board's decision was met with skepticism from several community leaders, who nonetheless vowed to keep an open mind when Hornsby begins work in July.
"As a parent, I'm concerned about whether in fact he's going to be able to come in and really turn the school system around and take it to where it needs to go," said Rushern L. Baker III, a former state delegate from Prince George's. "This [hiring of Hornsby] doesn't immediately give me confidence that we're making the giant steps we need to make."
In Yonkers -- New York state's fourth-largest city, just 14 miles north of midtown Manhattan -- Hornsby was known for more than raising test scores. His take-charge management style at times impressed and at other times alienated city leaders.
Mayor John D. Spencer, a Republican, said yesterday that he was a staunch supporter of Hornsby's at first. That support was steady throughout a 1999 teachers strike, he said, and even when grumbling began about the superintendent's management style.
But two issues eventually drove them apart, Spencer said. The Yonkers public schools were operating under a federal desegregation order, after a judge ruled in 1986 that minority children were segregated to poorer schools and that a remedy, which included busing, was needed.
Spencer said he resented the federal intervention, calling it a "bogus solution" imposed by outsiders. Hornsby was not eager to contest the court order, which came with millions of dollars in federal funding, and he argued that racial inequities still existed in the school system. The city's population is about 50 percent white, but Latinos and African Americans make up the majority of the public school population.
"That was completely opposite from what he was hired to do," Spencer said. "He was supposed to work with me."
It was when Hornsby publicly challenged the mayor's commitment to education that Spencer called on the Yonkers school board to fire him in June 2000, just hours after Hornsby had released test results showing dramatic student improvement. The Yonkers school system historically has received less state funding than its counterparts, and Spencer wanted a superintendent who would fight for more money, not train his criticism on city leaders.
To Spencer, it seemed like a betrayal.
"I don't know why he did that," the mayor said. "He called me out in front of the city, and when he did that, he lost."
Hornsby said yesterday that he worked hard to collaborate with Spencer, meeting with him as often as once a week to iron out their differences. Yet he said he couldn't give up his fight for the federal funding. "I couldn't sacrifice the children in Yonkers," he said.
Hornsby's tenure there was fraught with tension from the beginning. A native of New Orleans who grew up in Gary, Ind., and spent the bulk of his education career in Houston, Hornsby was viewed by many as an outsider. He also was the first black superintendent in a city of 196,000.
Still, his supporters and critics alike acknowledge that his initiatives were educationally sound. He introduced a standardized reading curriculum in all grades, which remains in use today, said Angelo Petrone, who was a principal under Hornsby and is now the interim superintendent.
He held seminars on how to read student test scores, pushing teachers and principals to analyze data, student by student, and then develop a plan to shore up a student's weak spots, Petrone said. But it was detailed, intense work, and Hornsby was asking a staff of mostly seasoned teachers to incorporate new techniques. The implication for some teachers was that their current methods were inferior, and some teachers bristled.
"Maybe he came on a little too strong that way, but the bottom line is, what are you looking to achieve?" Petrone said.
Prince George's union leaders, who asked the board not to select Hornsby, said yesterday that they are disappointed with the decision, which was opposed only by board member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro). "I think what message this sends is that the people that do the work are not valued," said Celeste Williams, president of the teachers union.
Hornsby took the first steps toward creating a working relationship with the Prince George's union leaders by calling them yesterday from his home in New York. After he was fired in Yonkers, he was a top administrator with the New York City school system; in January, his position was cut along with 70 others in a cost-saving move.
"I've been making an effort to talk to each and every one of them," Hornsby said yesterday. "I think it's important that I reach out and begin to demonstrate the skills I have and show a willingness to listen. It's time to move forward now."
Staff researchers Bobbye Pratt and Julie Tate contributed to this report.
of his new post.