John A. Murphy, a veteran superintendent who attracted national attention for his efforts to revitalize Prince George’s County classrooms as he guided the district through a desegregation battle in the 1980s, died Aug. 9 at his son’s home in North Andover, Mass. He was 76.
He had complications from a stroke and a heart ailment, said his son, Dan Murphy.
Dr. Murphy came to the Prince George’s school system in 1984 after holding the top job at a wealthy suburban district in Illinois — “almost a prep school,” as he described it.
In Prince George’s, he found himself in charge of a sprawling, financially strapped school system. Test scores put it near the bottom of Maryland school districts. Teacher morale had tanked after a round of layoffs.
Furthermore, Dr. Murphy, who was white, faced a contentious desegregation debate in the mostly black district.
“If we can make public education work and work well in Prince George’s,” he was quoted as telling a group of parents in 1985, “then the nation can be assured that public education will work anywhere.”
During his seven-year tenure as superintendent, he earned a reputation as a charismatic and effective administrator.
“I saw him as being one of the most creative and innovative leaders,” said former Maryland state superintendent of schools Nancy Grasmick. “If there was a cutting-edge strategy, he was involved in it.”
One of his most “remarkable” initiatives, Grasmick said, was to involve the business community in education. He persuaded local businesses to donate thousands of dollars for an advertising campaign to boost the school system’s image. Considering the businesses the future employers of his students, he sought their advice in shaping the curriculum.
In the classroom, Dr. Murphy was an advocate for test-based accountability before “standards” and “assessments” were catchphases in the education community, said Susan Pimentel, who worked with him in Prince George’s.
Under his leadership, the district shot from 21st place to 10th among Maryland districts on the standardized California Achievement Test.
A major issue during his administration was a court desegregation order that was more than a decade old. Instead of expanding busing, Dr. Murphy proposed creating magnet schools — special programs in science, foreign languages and the arts taught at predominantly black schools — with a goal of drawing white students to those locations.
Although wildly popular at first, the magnet schools became less effective as the county’s white population declined. In 1990, Dr. Murphy said that “the problems of the ’90s need different solutions” and that he didn’t think “magnet schools alone are the best answer.”
The program was abandoned seven years after Dr. Murphy left office. Educators credited him with helping to close the gap between the district’s black and white students, especially in elementary schools.
In 1990, when districts around the country looked ready to hire Dr. Murphy away, county officials put on the table a 10-year contract raising his salary to $150,000 if he promised not to pursue other jobs.
That proposal proved controversial, not only for the contract’s length and dollar figure. Some community leaders hoped to see an African American superintendent in Prince George’s County before the end of the decade, especially as the district’s black population grew.
Dr. Murphy turned down the contract offer from Prince George’s and accepted a job as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, where he stayed until 1996.
John Andrew Murphy Jr. was born June 13, 1935, in North Adams, Mass.
He graduated in 1958 from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and earned a doctorate in education administration from the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1972.
Before coming to Prince George’s County, he led school districts in North Carolina, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Florida and New Hampshire. He left the job in Park Ridge, Ill., to come to Maryland, he told The Washington Post, because he was “in fat city” and was “bored to death.”
His first wife, Carole Woodlock, died in 1971 after 15 years of marriage. His later marriages to Patricia Duggan and Ruth Shuping ended in divorce.
Besides his son, survivors include his wife of 20 years, the former Katherine Bray, of Miami; three other children from his first marriage, Nancy Morris of Salem, N.H., Bob Murphy of Charlotte, N.C., and Bill Murphy of Los Angeles; a son from his second marriage, Sean Murphy of Charlotte; a daughter from his third marriage, Martha Murphy of Asheville, N.C.; one sister; and seven grandchildren.
“The tragedy of many American school systems,” Dr. Murphy told The Post in 1984, “is that we throw up our hands and say, ‘We can’t help these kids . . . look where they come from.’ That’s a poor excuse. If we raise the expectations, they’ll meet the expectations and will achieve.”