The Prince George's County Board of Education solved its most immediate challenge -- a headless school system -- for $100 an hour.
That's what Howard A. Burnett is being paid, for up to 50 hours a week, as a stopgap replacement for departed schools chief Andre J. Hornsby. But the school board's 12-week deal with the veteran administrator ensures leadership of Maryland's second-largest school system only through summer vacation.
After that, board members acknowledge, there are only question marks. More than five weeks after Hornsby quit May 27 amid an FBI probe and an ethics controversy, the school board has not agreed on a detailed plan to search for a successor to lead more than 136,000 students and 8,000 teachers in nearly 200 schools.
"We need to be really focused on bringing this to some conclusion, and fairly quickly," said board member Robert O. Duncan (Laurel). "Every day that you don't have the person you're going to say is the de facto senior manager for the whole school system is a day that you've taken too long to get somebody in place."
Several factors, from seasonal to political, are complicating the board's quest to replace Hornsby.
By midsummer, most superintendents have decided where they will work when school opens. That narrows the field. Burnett's deal with the board runs through Aug. 23, the day after the county's schools reopen. But he and key board members said it could be extended by mutual agreement to give the search more time.
Burnett, 52, has declared repeatedly that he is not a candidate to take the job long-term. He said that he wants to retire by Oct. 1 after 30 years in the school system but that he would not leave schools in the lurch. "Everyone knows I'm not going to just walk out the door on the system," Burnett said.
Still, time is growing short for a school board due to disband at the end of 2006. The nine-member board was appointed by then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) and then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) in 2002 to stabilize a system in turmoil under an elected board. Next year, school board elections will resume, raising the political stakes of this year's leadership search. Critics of the board said the 2003 search that yielded Hornsby was flawed.
Board Chairman Beatrice P. Tignor (Upper Marlboro) sketched three possible paths for the new search. The board, she said, could seek to offer someone a two-year deal, with an option to extend the term for another two. It could seek to offer a four-year deal. Or it could name an acting chief as caretaker while it conducts a longer search -- a possibility Tignor called unlikely.
Tignor said that the board would agree on a search process early this month and that a final decision would not be rushed. "I want us to put the best process forward to get us the best person to uplift our children," Tignor said.
Board Vice Chairman Howard W. Stone Jr. (Mitchellville) said he favored offering a two-year deal. "It would be arrogant of this board to select [a chief] for four years knowing very well that our terms are up in 18 months," Stone said. But board member Jose Morales (Greenbelt) said a four-year contract might be needed to give the incoming chief enough clout.
In the vacuum left by Hornsby's abrupt departure midway through a four-year contract that paid him a $250,000 annual salary, some names have been floated as possible successors.
In mid-June, Stone suggested Tignor, a notion she quickly squelched. Others mentioned include former school board chairman Alvin Thornton, a Howard University official; former county schools superintendent Jerome Clark, who served from 1995 to 1999; and Jacqueline F. Brown, a former Howard County school official who is chief administrative officer for the Prince George's County government.
Speculation is likely to intensify as the search gives County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and other elected officials a chance to wield influence.
County Council member Douglas J.J. Peters (D-Bowie) noted that the last two school leaders were outsiders hired to shake things up: Hornsby, from New York, and Iris T. Metts, from Delaware, who served from 1999 to 2003. He said the school board now should look close to home.
"Whatever pool is put together," Peters said, "I think they've got to have outside and local people and not be so caught up in someone who's going to come in here and change the whole world. We need somebody who's going to quietly lead."
Most board members yearn for a controversy-free chief after dealing with questions about Hornsby's management practices, his relationship with a vendor's saleswoman and his handling of federal funds. He has denied wrongdoing.
Member Judy Mickens-Murray (Upper Marlboro) said she wants a schools chief "who is above reproach with ethics, who has a moral code that resonates with a majority of the citizenry."