A story yesterday about Montgomery County School Superintendent Harry Pitt's decision to retire contained a reference to a proposed study of Alexandria schools. Two members of the City Council want a study of school management, but Superintendent Paul Masem would not be the focus of the report. (Published 12/20/90)

Montgomery County School Superintendent Harry Pitt has decided to step down, ending four years as the cautious, respected steward of one of the nation's biggest, best-regarded and most diverse school systems.

Pitt, 60, said yesterday that he told Board of Education members at the end of a closed meeting Monday night that he had decided to retire when his contract expires in June.

Although he has debated the merits of a second term for months, his announcement startled board members and, yesterday, the school system's senior administrators, who view Pitt as a stabilizing influence at a time when Montgomery is sinking into a turbulent financial period.

In fact, many had believed that the prospect of a difficult budget fight would motivate Pitt, a 29-year veteran of the school system, to stay on. But on balance, he said last night, the job seemed too grueling to linger in for another four years, and he did not want to become a virtual lame duck by agreeing to a shorter stint.

Pitt has become the latest in a growing list of Washington area superintendents to decide that their jobs are too arduous or to be told to leave.

Last month, the D.C. Board of Education fired Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins. In Prince George's County, John A. Murphy is openly looking for a new job after conflicts with the county's minority communities.

In addition, the Alexandria City Council, criticizing Superintendent Paul W. Masem, has called for an independent critique of that school system's management.

Pitt said in an interview last night, "I'm not quitting because things are getting harder." In a county with 103,700 students, 14,000 employees and 160 schools, he said, "the superintendency is never easy. It is a job that is very wearing, very stressful."

Pitt's departure will leave the Montgomery schools in flux at a vulnerable time.

The county's financial base is eroding as the school system is in the midst of a growth spurt that is projected to increase enrollment by one-fourth over the next five years. In addition, the seven-member school board acquired four new members last month. "This is really going to test us like I don't think anybody expected," said Catherine Hobbs, the board's vice president.

Compared to his counterparts in other local school systems, Pitt has faced relatively little political opposition.

The new school board has elected as president Blair Ewing, the sole member who opposed Pitt's selection as superintendent in 1987. But last night, Ewing and other board members said that, while the board never had taken a vote, they believed Pitt would have been welcome to remain. Ewing said he would have endorsed him.

Pitt also is a popular fixture with county politicians, who view him as a straight-talking, knowledgeable education lobbyist who is sensitive to the county's finances. "Harry Pitt is probably the best advocate for kids this county could have," said County Council member Michael L. Subin, chairman of the council's education committee. "I think {his retirement} is a terrible blow to the school system."

The rigors of the job result from the demands of parents and community groups in a county where good schools traditionally have been a central priority. "This community is very vocal. It has high expectations," Pitt said. "You'd be surprised how many people in this county know the superintendent of schools. People know you. There is status. But the other side is, you are always on call."

He also has had to juggle the need for new schools in the northern county against the needs of a increasingly diverse student body. Montgomery enrolls 5,000 of Maryland's 8,000 recent immigrant students, and its minority enrollment has climbed to 37 percent. At the same time, public support for education has dwindled as households with children make up a shrinking share of the county's population.

Given such pressures, "I'm sorry that he is leaving, but I respect the decision," said Sharon DiFonzo, a board member who has been one of Pitt's strongest supporters. "He is at the pinnacle of his career. Why should he get dragged through the kind of mud we are going to go through {financially} over the next few years?"

Pitt, who is paid $115,500 a year, is eligible for full retirement benefits. He said he wants another, less time-consuming job, although he is not sure what kind he wants and has not begun to look for one.

School board members said they had not begun discussing how to find a successor. Ewing said the board would confer during the next few weeks whether to conduct a search and how broad it should be.

In the school system, Paul L. Vance, the deputy superintendent, has been mentioned as a possible candidate, although there is uncertainty whether he is interested. Reached last night, Vance said he had not decided, adding, "at some point, I'm going to have to respond to it."

In Montgomery, which has swung between superintendents who were outsiders and veterans, Pitt has been the consummate insider. He joined the school system as principal of Silver Spring's Sherwood High School and worked his way up the administrative rungs.

He was deputy superintendent for eight years before the school board offered him the top job. Before taking the helm, he was known as a cautious, hands-on manager, working in the superintendent's shadow. He is not known as a theoretician or an automatic champion of reform, and his critics complain mainly that he has moved gingerly toward change.

Ewing said, "I wouldn't call him a reformer or great innovator, but he has been focused on making changes that I think are important."

During his tenure, Pitt has expanded the school system's emphasis on the achievement of minority students, installing a plan to hold each school accountable for its students' performance. He also has embraced, albeit gradually, a set of revisions intended to improve the quality of teaching, including an experiment in school-based management and a major effort to help new teachers acclimate themselves.

Pitt said that one of his achievements was setting up phased-in improvements, such as changes in class size, that were more likely to be acceptable to the county executive and County Council.

Last night, County Executive Neil Potter said Pitt has "tried to cooperate with the county and its fiscal problems." Potter said he had been impressed by "his ability to respond to any questions on any parts of the system.

"He has provided the county with very good services. I regret his leaving," Potter said.

Pitt said he would like to have seen more improvements in early childhood education, and in minority students' education, and in incorporating many cultures into the curriculum. But he said, "You can only help so much. You can't be a miracle worker."

On leaving, he said, "I have a certain amount of guilty feelings -- {that} I have somehow a responsibility and I'm not fulfilling it." He said he is unsure what his life will be like after June. "I am very nervous about it . . . . I certainly don't want to sit home not doing anything, and I'm going to miss this school system."