Why Baltimore would have a hard time finding a new school superintendent

December 16, 1990|By Mike Bowler

If the Baltimore school board fails to renew Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's contract -- and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has given the board 60 days to decide -- it will find slim pickings among those men and women willing and able to lead an urban school system.

In economic terms, the problem is that the supply of experienced urban educators is down -- while demand rises as school boards in majority-black districts look for blacks to lead their schools and act as role models.

The Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of the 47 biggest districts, reports that the average tenure of school chiefs in member districts was 4.5 years during the 1980s. In the biggest cities -- the Detroits, New Yorks, Washingtons and Baltimores of the nation -- the average tenure is now about 2.5 years (coincidentally, the time Dr. Hunter has been in Baltimore).

Like circuit preachers and big-league baseball managers, the big-city school chiefs roam from town to town. They encounter school boards (many of them elected) that change with political winds.

Typically, the newcomers are expected to "reform" and "throw out the deadwood." And typically, too, they confront the seemingly intractable problems of every American urban center: underachieving and unmotivated students and teachers, an alarming plague of drugs, huge dropout and teen-age pregnancy rates, schools that are falling apart physically and state education finance formulas that favor wealthy suburban districts.

"It's been going on for years. It's just now beginning to catch up with us," says Michael D. Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington. "The urban pathology is just cascading on people." The superintendents remember the suicide note left five years ago by Frederick Holliday, superintendent in Cleveland. Dr. Holliday, who shot himself in a city school stairwell, said he was "sickened" by the internal politics of the school board.

Two years is generally enough time for a superintendent's honeymoon. Some get fired. Some leave their jobs, escaping to academia or moving on to a new city. For example, Robert S. Peterkin, who had built a strong reputation after only three years in Milwaukee, recently left to run a program at Harvard designed to prepare urban superintendents. Dr. Peterkin reportedly turned down $190,000 a year to head the troubled system in Detroit.

On consecutive days at the turn of this month, Houston and Toledo lost their superintendents. A few days later, the Boston City Council voted to abolish the school committee after it delayed six months in finding a replacement for Superintendent Laval S. Wilson. Dr. Wilson had been fired in February just weeks after receiving a performance evaluation more positive than the one Dr. Hunter got from the Baltimore board earlier this month. (In effect, Dr. Wilson got a B, Dr. Hunter a C-.)

Dr. Wilson, Boston's first black superintendent, was fired by a majority-white school board. Black educators say that the first black in a superintendency always is under greater pressure than his or her predecessors, but four of the five previous Boston superintendents were also let go.

Other cities looking for new chiefs are Atlanta and Savannah, Ga.; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; Columbus, Ohio; El Paso, Texas; Hartford, Conn.; Indianapolis; Kansas City and St. Louis, Mo.; Milwaukee; San Francisco; Tucson, Ariz.; and Washington, D.C. Washington's superintendent, Andrew E. Jenkins, was fired a public meeting a little more than a week ago. After the meeting, his supporters ransacked school board offices.

In all, says Samuel B. Husk, executive director of the Great City Schools organization, 18 urban school districts are looking for school chiefs, and an additional 14 big-city superintendents are in their first 18 months in office.

Dr. Husk points to another reason for the paucity of available urban superintendents. "Talented young African-Americans are simply not going into education," he says. "The older urban centers -- Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, Memphis, St. Louis -- used to be a wellspring of educational leadership, much of it coming from the historically black colleges and universities. It used to be that these schools taught people to preach or teach, but by and large they're not turning out preachers or teachers anymore."

Ironically, Dr. Husk says, the desegregation of the nation's schools actually reduced the number of opportunities for blacks to move into top posts. Many small black districts were merged into larger white ones. The National Alliance of Black School Educators says that only 179 of the nation's 15,600 districts are headed by blacks.

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