A day after he was named chief executive of Prince George's County public schools, Andre J. Hornsby made phone calls to the union leaders who had opposed his hiring.
"I'm confident that we're all in the business for the same reason," he said in an interview last week. "I think we all want the best education system that we can provide in Prince George's County."
Whether those calls will pay off for Hornsby remains to be seen. Union leaders said this week that they remain skeptical. But most School Board members were confident they had made a strong choice.
The board picked Hornsby last week over two other finalists, voting, 8 to 1, to give him a four-year contract with an annual salary of $250,000. The board members, who had reviewed nearly 30 applications, said they hired Hornsby because test scores increased in the two years that he headed the 26,000-student Yonkers, N.Y., system, where he was superintendent, and in the 24-school region of Houston's public school system that he ran for three years before going to Yonkers.
When Hornsby takes over in July, he will inherit a school system that has ranked second-to-last among Maryland's public school systems on most state and national standardized tests and continually has had several schools threatened with state takeover.
Hornsby's selection was praised by many but also sparked concern in some quarters. Union leaders said they were worried about what they viewed as his anti-teacher stance during a 1999 teachers strike in Yonkers. The teachers struck for what they considered contract violations. His critics there chafed at what they said was his headstrong, self-assured demeanor. He publicly feuded with the mayor, who then succeeded in persuading the school board he had appointed to fire Hornsby in June 2000.
Hornsby went to work in the New York City public school system but was among 70 community superintendents laid off in January in what school system officials said was a cost-cutting measure.
In Prince George's, leaders of unions representing teachers, principals and support staff endorsed another candidate, Barbara Moore Pulliam, superintendent in St. Louis Park, Minn., whom they described as more collaborative than Hornsby. They had been among the Prince George's community leaders invited to interview the three finalists before the school board made its choice. The third finalist was John "Jack" Keegan Jr., superintendent of Sioux Falls, S.D., schools.
Hornsby "was in two other situations where he had problems with the unions, so that's a major concern because the unions here are strong," said Celeste Williams, president of the Prince George's County Educators' Association, which represents 9,000 teachers.
"It seemed that no one cared what . . . the unions said about this guy, and they made a decision and we have to work with him for the next four years," said Carnell Reed, president of the union representing 1,200 custodians.
School board members said they thought that Hornsby had the most experience working with a large minority population, limited financial resources and political turmoil, all likely to be part of the landscape for any future superintendent in Prince George's. "We certainly wanted to work with the unions," said board member Dean Sirjue, who lives in Bowie. "But we can't focus on what's best for the unions. We have to focus on what's best for the children."
Board members also said they believe that Hornsby has learned from his experiences in Yonkers.
They are lessons he would likely use in Prince George's. Departing schools chief Iris T. Metts decided not to seek renewal of her contract after four turbulent years, during which the elected school board tried twice to fire her. State lawmakers abolished the elected board in favor of an appointed panel last fall.
"He's had some experiences that taught him about bringing a community together," said board member Abby L.W. Crowley of Greenbelt. "I'm more worried about [bringing in] people who have not had those challenges and experiences. I don't want them learning here."
Hornsby said he wants to cooperate with union leaders when he begins work on July 1. "We'll have to build trust, and I understand that," he said, speaking from his home in New York.
He also said that despite his reputation for shaking up organizations, he plans to study the school system before making big changes. "My style is to first understand what I have, which is critical," he said. "You don't want to come in and make wholesale changes without knowing what you have."
Some county leaders said they supported the board's decision to hire someone with a strong personality.
"I think we need a strong type [of leader]," said Howard Tutman, president of the County Council of PTAs. "We're all adults here. We know the situation our school system is in. We need results right now."
"What I want is success, and I don't think you can have a good leader who isn't controversial at some level," said county council Chairman Peter Shapiro (D-Brentwood). "Change is unsettling, and I think from what I've read, the board selected a person who they felt could actually deliver. In the process of delivering, are feathers going to be ruffled? I hope so."
But Judy Mickens-Murray, the sole board member who opposed Hornsby, said she was worried about his style and feared that he would not work collaboratively. That view was echoed by at least one state lawmaker.
"I hope the board sets some real and clear accountability standards for the new superintendent," said state Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George's). "I think to avoid a replay of the last four years, because of the concerns shared by the community and other legislators, I think there's a need to have accountability standards."
Hornsby, a New Orleans native who grew up in Gary, Ind., has an undergraduate degree from the University of Tulsa, a master's in physical education from the University of Houston and a doctorate in educational administration from Texas Southern University. He is president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators.