At a recent Anne Arundel County school board meeting, members bemoaned losing one of the district's most prominent and influential leaders to a neighboring county.
They weren't talking about Superintendent Kevin Maxwell's departure to take a similar post in Prince George's County.
Instead, they were lamenting the loss of Bill Heiser, the principal of North County High School and recent Principal of the Year honoree, who departed this month to become principal of Catonsville High in Baltimore County.
"Dr. Heiser built some great community partnerships," said school board President Andrew Pruski. "His commitment to hiring the best, high-quality teachers, forming partnerships and having alternative programs; he was innovative.
"It's difficult to see him go," Pruski added.
Heiser's three years as principal of the Glen Burnie school has presented a striking before-and-after scenario. In 2009, the year before he arrived, North County's seniors earned $1.7 million in scholarships toward college. Last academic year, seniors earned $11.1 million in scholarships, officials said.
Moreover, the number of students making the honor roll has tripled, the school's SAT participation has climbed from 39 percent to 68 percent, and the number of Advanced Placement exams administered has grown from 369 to more than 1,100. Two months ago, Heiser was named 2013 Principal of the Year by the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals.
"When I became principal at North County three years ago, the opportunities were far greater than any challenges or obstacles," said Heiser, 40. "Educational research suggests that it takes about five years to begin to change a school's culture, but I believed that it could happen much faster at North County, and it did."
Heiser said his decision to leave North County was difficult but was based on "a strong desire to continue to grow professionally."
"In the end, the opportunity to serve an excellent school like Catonsville High School and learn from new colleagues ... was an opportunity I couldn't pass up," Heiser said.
"He was one of the better principals that North County has had," said Kitty Garner, president of the North County PTSA. "Students always came first. He always tried to push the students further and make them better.
"I'm brokenhearted to hear that he's leaving," Garner said. "When my husband died, [Heiser] went far to make sure that my kids were fine at school, and he kept checking up to make sure I was OK."
Garner said she wonders how the county will be affected by Heiser's departure as well as that of Maxwell, with whom she worked when the superintendent was principal at Northwestern High School in Prince George's County.
"I'm scared to see what is going to happen now, as far as the schools are concerned," she said.
As for his next assignment, Heiser said he will get to know the Catonsville High community before setting goals for the school and its students. He said he hopes to build partnerships with two nearby colleges, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Community College of Baltimore County.
"Catonsville has a really long tradition of excellence, so that certainly played a role in my [decision]," said Heiser. "They're in a different place in the journey. The Baltimore County school system is really progressive. Building partnerships in the long run is something that we'll be looking forward to."
During his time at North County, Heiser saw numerous individual success stories, including Cierra Carter and Fatima Tahir, two of the system's three students to win Gates Millennium scholarships. Then there's Jack Andraka, who was awarded the grand prize at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Pittsburgh for developing a dip-stick sensor to detect pancreatic cancer.
He said he's confident those success stories will continue to emerge from Anne Arundel schools.
"I'm confident that North County and Anne Arundel County public schools will continue to do great things in the future," Heiser said.
The school board discussed Heiser's departure at the same meeting where the panel approved systemwide pay increases as part of a $1 billion operating budget. Pruski and other board members said the increases are necessary to keep school system employees from leaving Anne Arundel for neighboring districts with better salaries.
"We do need to remain competitive," Pruski said, "because we're going to lose some of that leadership."