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Betty Morgan's influence will be felt for years to come

February 27, 2011

The first time I met Betty Morgan at her office, she insisted that I scope out the Washington County Superintendent of School’s executive bathroom. The request wasn’t as weird as it sounded. In retrospect, it explained why she was needed here, and why after a decade on the job she felt the need to leave.

The bathroom episode was quintessentially Washington County — a meaningless symbol exaggerated beyond recognition and assigned a meaning all out of proportion with reality.

Morgan, the county’s first female superintendent, simply wanted a washroom adjacent to her office, which is pretty much standard for any executive office nationwide. It was the tiniest of spaces — not enough room to swing a cat — and had the simplest of appointments.

Yet the public rumor mill got hold of it, and suddenly there were stories of Roman baths with flowing fountains and potted palms. This, of course, morphed into a morality play about government waste, big-city attitudes of self-importance, you name it. Few seemed able to digest the fact that sometimes a washroom is just a washroom.

If Morgan hadn’t known what the job was before, she did now. Education often begins with the smiting of erroneous stereotypes, and there were plenty around here to be had. Among them were the notions that education was not all that important and that our kids could never be competitive on a world stage, so they ought to just stay home.

Morgan credits past boards and superintendents for creating cracks in this bucolic mindset. Morgan, who leaves office tomorrow, will best be remembered for driving the bus through these cracks.

There might be school systems out there that have changed more in 10 years than Washington County’s has under Morgan. But it is doubtful any attitude about education in a community could have changed as much.

Prior to Morgan’s arrival, the school board had an annual and unsuccessful fight each year with the County Commissioners for full funding of its budget. But with her delicate balance between charm and browbeating, Morgan was able to change the standard. What she asked for, she got.

She has been roundly criticized in numerous circles for various and sundry offenses too numerous (and frequently too trivial) to mention. This, in itself, was an almost unthinkable accomplishment. All of a sudden, people are caring — caring about a system that had remained on autopilot in most people’s brains for decades.

It used to be that the most controversy a superintendent generated in this county had to do with either redistricting or the decision to close, or not to close, schools due to snow. Today, we have people arguing over dropout rates, teaching methods, programs, curricula and the true meaning of test scores. Morgan never really saw any of this as a positive, but in this community it was huge. For our erstwhile, uncontroversial school system, any publicity was good publicity.

Morgan might have broken an inordinate amount of eggs, but her omelets were exemplary.

And her influence extended beyond education and beyond Washington County. For the past 10 years, Washington County has had no bigger advocate in Annapolis than Morgan, who could talk Scrooge himself into buying an iPad. New buildings went up; the technical high school began teaching industrial arts applicable to the 21st century; magnet schools give students the choice of specialties and intensive training in those areas; we have an arts school that is the envy of other systems (and downtowns) up and down the East Coast; and Washington County schools became regulars on U.S. News and World Report rankings of the nation’s best schools.

Morgan was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2010, yet when considering her resume, that’s way down on the list of things that make you stand up and take notice. Even her detractors would be lying to themselves if they didn’t look back on the last 10 years and think, at least, “wow.” Like her direction or not, she moved.

It’s my personal view that we were very fortunate to have had her services for a solid amount of time. I do know that she had little patience for the washroom element, and with those who could never give her credit for any progress whatsoever. In the end, this is what helped to make the decision to move on a little easier.

And maybe the time is right. Once a high-performance machine has been built, dynamic leaders seldom have the temperament for routine maintenance.

On coming here, Morgan’s stated goal was a “world class education” for Washington County students. Of course, not every student who is availed of a world-class system is guaranteed success; parents, communities and the students themselves must contribute to the equation as well.

But thanks to Morgan, and the boards, teachers and staff she led, a world class education is indeed attainable for any boy or girl who has the desire to achieve. Today, we know Morgan’s accomplishments in theory. Tomorrow, when these students are unleashed on a world stage, we will know her accomplishments for real.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 6997, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com.

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