Communication problems -- too few words at times, too many at others -- poisoned the rapport between Anne Arundel Superintendent Eric J. Smith and the school board and ultimately persuaded him to leave, Smith said yesterday.
Never was that more clear than at yesterday's six-hour board meeting, which fell one day after Smith's surprise announcement that he was stepping down. Two Anne Arundel school board members asked him whether he would reconsider his resignation and finish out his contract. They did not get an immediate reply.
After the meeting, Smith said his decision was final. Responding to pleas from board members Paul G. Rudolph and Michael G. Leahy, both of whom had asked him to reconsider, Smith said, "The time for that is already past."
Smith, an educator of national stature who came to Anne Arundel three years ago with a mandate to raise achievement, will leave at Thanksgiving to take a job in the Harvard University education school. He leaves with less than a year remaining on his contract.
The reason, he said yesterday, is a series of caustic public remarks made by board members after the release in July of an audit that faulted Smith's human resources department, alleging a pattern of excessive pay raises and hiring bonuses and shoddy record-keeping. Several board members publicly chastised Smith, saying he seldom shared his plans with them and was losing their trust.
His imminent departure has set off something of a collective panic attack among parents and community leaders. He had enjoyed the support of parents across socioeconomic and racial lines, given his record of raising minority achievement. Some challenged the school board yesterday to produce a plan, any plan, for what to do next.
"You must have some backup or contingency plan," said Sam Georgiou, a pharmacist who chairs the countywide Citizen Advisory Committee. "We ask you to share that plan now. What are we going to do?"
Konrad M. Wayson, the board president, indicated it was too soon to say.
Other board members offered apologies, saying they never wished for Smith to leave before the end of his contract in June.
"Though I accept your decision to resign, I think that you have an obligation [to stay] until June -- and I want you to reconsider your decision," said Leahy, one of the few in the group who had not spoken out publicly against the superintendent about the audit.
Smith notified the board Aug. 23 of his intention to leave, and he said he offered board members a chance to change his mind. The school board replied, through an attorney, that it wished him to finish his contract. That, to Smith, was not good enough. "For a superintendent to in fact lead, you have to be leading someplace," Smith said yesterday. "You can't just be leading till March," the date when the school board would have decided whether to renew his four-year contract. The exchange left Smith with no assurance he had a future in Anne Arundel beyond the summer.
Robert S. Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard, said Smith, a longtime associate, contacted him about two weeks ago and "said he didn't know whether or not the political climate was going to allow him to stay."
Smith will be a superintendent in residence at Harvard's graduate education school, operating "much like a visiting professor," Peterkin said. The job also will allow Smith to work as a consultant.
"I think the body of work he's done, everywhere he's ever been, speaks for himself," Peterkin said.
Finding an interim superintendent should not be difficult. His top staff includes at least two men, Assistant Superintendents Jose Torres and Bill Wise, who were superintendents in other systems. But the board has not said who might replace Smith after Thanksgiving.
Some community leaders wondered whether the friction between Smith and the board will deter potential applicants.
"I'm concerned that we're going to have difficulty finding a willing replacement because of public perception that we can't keep a high-profile, nationally recognized superintendent," Georgiou said.
Staff writers Eric Rich and Susan Kinzie and researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.