Frederick County schools supe earns more praise than criticism -- Gazette.Net


Theresa Alban has faced a daunting list of challenges since taking the job as superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools in July 2011.

Last year alone, while still getting used to Frederick County and to the role of a school system leader, she handled her first tight budget, dealt with a work-to-rule teacher protest and endured an appeal that questioned her decision on the use of the controversial “Social Studies Alive!” textbook.

On top of that, Alban reorganized her central office administration, weighed in on two proposed charter schools and helped her staff prepare for the most significant changes in education in the last 30 years — the adoption of the nationwide Common Core State Standards.

In her 18 months as superintendent, Alban, a veteran educator who worked in Howard County before coming to Frederick, has been under pressure to make tough decisions quickly and efficiently.

And in a few cases, parents have felt she could have done more to keep them involved in the decision-making process.

But as Alban moves toward the second year of her four-year contract, many community members, including those who have questioned her decisions, have praised her hard work, approachable nature and ability to remain focused and create positive relationships in a difficult political and financial climate.

“She is doing a good job,” said Blaine R. Young (R), the president of the Frederick County Board of Commissioners.

A fiscal conservative who has often criticized school spending, Young has praised Alban’s responsible budget decisions and initiatives.

Although the Frederick County Board of Education has not always upheld her recommendations, Alban has made an effort to ensure that the school system runs efficiently and spends responsibly, Young said.

In her recommended budget last year, Alban suggested giving raises to teachers but also proposed a range of smart cuts, including increasing class size by an average of one student, Young said.

Looking for more efficient use of school space and a way to ease overcrowding in Urbana, Alban also recommended moving the magnet program at Urbana Elementary to the new Lincoln Elementary in Frederick, he said.

More recently, Alban has also been looking at outsourcing some custodial duties as a way to make school system’s maintenance of grounds more efficient, Young said.

“The superintendent does realize that there is so much money that can be spent,” Young said. “She is more in tune with what the state of affairs really is. She is a fiscal realist.”

School board members have also praised Alban’s work.

Although she has sometimes questioned the decisions of Alban and her staff, school board member April Miller also commended the superintendent for what she has done.

“She has a more hands-on management style,” Miller said. “She has been reaching out to the schools, and she has been reaching out to the students.”

Some parental complaints

But Alban’s no-nonsense approach has also earned her some criticism.

“I think she has done some things to lessen our voice,” said Cindy Rose, a Knoxville resident and a frequent school system critic.

Rose was one of the parents who last year raised concerns about “Social Studies Alive!,” a controversial third-grade textbook that parents said promotes a liberal ideology. The school system assembled a taskforce to study the book, which recommended it be replaced as soon as possible.

But Alban decided to keep the book until 2014-15, arguing that the school system had no immediate funds for the change, and educators should wait until the state issues its new requirements for social studies.

Despite the appeal from parents, the seven-member school board upheld Alban’s recommendation.

“There hasn’t been a lot of consideration of what parents want .... They are not treated as partners,” Rose said. “I don’t think that is new, and I don’t think Dr. Alban is doing it. But she needs to be a leader in that, and I don’t think she has gotten there yet.”

More recently, a new proposal to change middle school schedules by moving from 90-minute to 47-minute class periods has raised similar concerns among parents.

Although principals and administrators had been working for months on the proposal, Alban and her staff made no focused effort to solicit community input until they presented it to the school board on Nov. 28. The board was scheduled to make a decision on the proposal Wednesday, after The Gazette’s deadline.

School officials have asked parents to offer their feedback, but parents did not get a chance to weigh in on the proposal at a public hearing.

“They left out important stakeholders,” said Janice Spiegel, a former president of the Frederick County PTA Council and one of the parents upset with the way the issue was handled. “We should not be making these major policy decisions in December when parents are disengaged.”

Alban defended the process, although she has also spoken with parents who had concerns and is taking steps to avoid such issues in the future.

When they put together the proposal, county school administrators were looking for a long-awaited solution to middle-school issues and also seeking to prepare county students for the state’s new standardized tests, which will replace the existing Maryland School Assessments in the 2014-15 school year, Alban has said.

Maryland schools will try the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers assessments in 2013-14, but schools will not be held accountable for student progress for the first year, which is why Alban has urged the board to sign off on the change this year.

“If people say to us, ‘Please, don’t change it,’ that will not be in the best interest of our students,” Alban told the board in November when presenting the proposal. “To falter now means we are losing a very critical year. We took the time, we did this thoughtfully, and we did it well.”

But after she realized parents had concerns, Alban directed her staff to open all lines of communication for feedback.

“Before winter break, we had 109 responses, and the overwhelming majority were in favor of the proposed schedule,” Alban said in an email to The Gazette on Friday.

Alban said she has spoken to many of the parents who were worried.

“They believed we are just going to ‘tweak’ the schedule ...” Alban wrote in her email. “I will be meeting with the PTA Council Board of Directors in January, and we can certainly look at ways to improve the process for the future.”

Spiegel appreciates that response.

“I think she understood where we were coming from,” she said.

“Terry has been very responsive to the public,” Spiegel said. “... She is very down to Earth and very approachable. I don’t always agree with her decisions, but I think she is good for Frederick County.”

Strong background

A veteran educator with 30 years of teaching and administrative experience, Alban came to Frederick County at age 52 after working in Baltimore, Montgomery and Howard counties — some of the largest school systems in Maryland.

When she was hired, Alban was the chief officer for operations and one of the top four officials for Howard County schools, a job that put her in charge of transportation, technology, construction and facilities, as well as student assessment and testing. She had started that job in 2008, and was the first woman ever selected for the position.

In Frederick County, Alban replaced former Superintendent Linda Burgee, who retired after wrapping up a 35-year career as educator with the school system, including seven years as superintendent.

Although Alban, who now lives in Frederick, had not served as a superintendent before, school board members were drawn to her solid background in all aspects of school system operations and her track record for accountability and collaborative work, which fit the community demand for a strong leader.

The board was also looking for a leader ready to work with facts and who was not afraid to crunch numbers and tackle tight budgets, school board member Jean Smith said.

“She had the experience with maintenance, facilties, transportation ....” Smith said. “She is a numbers person.”

Being in charge of 66 schools, more than 5,500 employees, more than 40,000 students and a budget of $523 million is never easy, but Alban took the job at a particularly challenging time.

By 2011, the school system had been operating on tight budgets for a few years, and there was discontent brewing among teachers who had already gone without salary increases since 2009. Recession funding for education was tight, leading to an increased tension between the commissioners and school board.

As the highest paid job in the school system, Burgee’s salary and her contract had also been under increased scrutiny from the community, which is why the school board decided to structure Alban’s compensation differently, school board member Brad Young said.

As a superintendent, Burgee made a base salary of $201,811 plus a $40,000 tax-sheltered annuity plan and was eligible for a $8,000 bonus based on her performance each year.

However, Alban makes $185,000 annually and gets $20,000 as a tax-sheltered annuity plan. And unlike Burgee, Alban cannot cash out unused sick days, does not get a bonus and receives the same salary increase as any other school system employee, Young said.

Although she had the disadvantage of having to learn the workings of an entire new system, Alban has done “outstanding” work, Young said.

From reorganizing the central office, to taking on the painful issue of improving middle schools, Alban has overseen all of the school board’s major changes while remaining approachable and visible in the community, he said.

“I am very satisfied with the job she is doing,” Young said. “The hardest part for every superintendent is getting to know the community and the politics.”

New challenges

However, unlike most of her predecessors, Alban has had to deal with a major challenge that has tested educators across the nation — the sweeping curriculum changes resulting from the new Common Core Curriculum.

The Common Core is an initiative among the states aimed at ensuring that students nationwide are being prepared to meet the same expectations in all subjects.

Maryland adopted the standards in 2010, and county educators had to develop a brand new curriculum matching those expectations.

While the county now is in the second year of implementing that curriculum, educators now are also preparing for new state tests — the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC — which are aligned with the Common Core and will replace the existing Maryland School Assessments in 2014-15.

In addition, the county is preparing to launch a new teacher-evaluation system, which for a first time will require teachers to be graded based partially on their students’ performance.

Alban has been at the forefront of those efforts as she guided her staff in laying the foundation for the changes.

And even her critics have recognized the pressure that such transition has added to Alban’s regular duties.

“I do believe she’s got a lot on her plate, especially for someone who has not been a superintendent before,” Rose said.

Overall, the superintendent has been doing the best she can, given the current economic climate, the school system’s available resources and the slew of unfunded state and federal mandates that have bombarded the school system in recent years, Rose said.

But Alban said her most challenging time as superintendent was during last year’s budget session, when the school board’s decision not to ask commissioners for extra funding ignited teachers’ discontent.

Demanding better pay, county teachers rejected the school board’s contract and started a work-to-rule protest, working only the hours for which they were being paid.

During the negotiation process, Alban had to use all her skills as a mediator to help resolve the conflict and find the best solution for students.

“As superintendent, one of my most important jobs is to build consensus among people who frequently have very different points of view...” Alban said in an email. “Sometimes we will have to agree to disagree, but if we do what is right for our students then we stay true to our vision and mission.”

Gary Brennan, the president of the Frederick County Teachers Association, said he appreciated Alban’s input.

“It was a situation that she walked into,” Brennan said. “I know she was not thrilled when we rejected the school board’s original offer, but she remained professional throughout the entire process.”

And after the conflict, Alban has always been open to hearing the needs of teachers, he said.

“She is extremely bright, and I have never gotten the feeling that she sees the association as an obstacle,” he said.

Maintaining success

Looking back at her time as superintendent, Alban takes pride in tackling all the issues that the school board put before her, including enhancing the public perception of the school system, supporting student achievement and improving middle schools.

Under Alban’s leadership, the school system has focused on improving programs for advanced learners. This year, it started a program for highly able learners in the sixth grade, allowing teachers to challenge not only their top achievers but all of their students, Alban said in an email.

“This was a first big step in addressing the concerns about middle school,” Alban wrote.

As she approaches her second budget season, Alban will continue to look within the system for new ways to save.

Later this year, she also plans to start a community dialogue about what the school system will need to continue its high achievement.

Frederick County Public Schools have achieved the highest school performance index of all Maryland counties, according to the latest state data.

A part of Maryland’s new accountability system, the school performance index, is calculated from data on a school system’s test results, the reduction of gaps between its highest and lowest performing student groups, college readiness and improvement in test scores from one year to the next.

Alban takes pride in that high achievement and has vowed to find ways to maintain it in the future.

“Maintaining that level of excellence in the face of incredible mandated change will be difficult,” she said in the email. “It will take the whole community working with us and advocating for public education.”