School Reform after Hunter

December 20, 1990

The Kurt L. Schmoke who faced the media at City Hall yesterday morning spoke with unusual forcefulness and combativeness. After a series of disputes with Richard C. Hunter, the mayor had finally come to the realization that he and his hand-picked $125,000-a-year school superintendent fundamentally disagreed on policy and philosophy and should part ways.

Having communicated that decision to the school board, Mr. Schmoke showed none of his distaste for confrontation. "We need stronger, more energetic leadership supporting restructuring," the mayor declared. "Much of the progress that has been made has been in spite of Dr. Hunter, not because of him."

Indeed, the mayor exuded the self-confidence of a liberated man. He knew that more than eight months before next September's primary, he was freeing himself of a political burden that had embarrassed him in the past and might do so in the future. Mr. Schmoke could now look to the future -- and to his re-election campaign. "For me, what is at issue here is not only where the school system is now but where it is headed," he said. "In a system where we spend $500 million each year, we are entitled to a better product."

This is the message Mr. Schmoke wants Annapolis and Baltimoreans to hear. In dumping Dr. Hunter this early, the mayor can go before a fiscally embattled governor, parsimonious General Assembly and the voters as an advocate for accountability, a man who is not afraid of doing whatever it takes (even reversing himself) to improve educational performance in Baltimore City.

This is not a bad tactical position for a politician who ran for mayor nearly four years ago with education as his top priority. The trouble with Mr. Schmoke is that while he has some clear and thought-out ideas on education, he has not been able to communicate them clearly -- or enlist either the superintendent or the school board to consistently promote those ideas. This has been one of his administration's chief failures.

As a search begins for Dr. Hunter's successor, the mayor should do publicly what he did so well before the media yesterday: he should lay it all out. For example, the mayor made it clear that Baltimore City's next superintendent must be comfortable in working creatively with resources that are likely to be inferior to those in the suburbs. The mayor also flashed the possibility of hiring someone other than a professional educator to head the school system.

In dumping Dr. Hunter, Mr. Schmoke has created a true opportunity for educational restructuring and improvement.

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