Schmoke tells city school board to get rid of Hunter Principals, control at heart of conflict

December 20, 1990|By Will Englund

The chronic inability of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Superintendent Richard C. Hunter to see eye to eye on the problems bedeviling the Baltimore schools did not manifest itself in the corridors of the school system's monumental North Avenue administrative headquarters.

Nor did it come to a head within the nine-member Board of School Commissioners, although for two years the board has seemed unsure whether to follow the lead of its boss, the mayor, or of its employee, the superintendent.

Rather, the issues over which Mr. Schmoke and Dr. Hunter fell out surfaced again and again in the scattered, unremarkable and often scuffed-up offices of the city's 177 principals.

On everything from planning to school safety to the instructional program itself, the mayor acted as though he believed the success or failure of the system rested with the principals. The superintendent did not.

Mr. Schmoke courted principals, invited them to his City Hall office, asked to hear their problems, organized them into teams to dream up solutions to difficult but not intractable problems.

Dr. Hunter, on the other hand, turned his attention to North Avenue, grappling with the system's huge bureaucracy, struggling to assert his control over it. Principals seemed to be out of his sight.

One principal whose school Dr. Hunter has visited on several occasions was unable to elicit a greeting from him when they passed in the hall at North Avenue last week. Other principals have complained -- with astonishment -- that Dr. Hunter has visited their schools and not stopped in to see them.

An inadvertent but symbolic snafu occurred late last summer when Dr. Hunter met with the city's principals at Lake Clifton/Eastern High School. Behind him was a large video screen, on which was displayed a live, towering image of his face as he spoke. Suddenly he asked the camera operator to turn around and pan the audience, and he remarked, as he read his speech, that all could now see on the screen behind him the faces of people resolved to go out and do good work.

But at precisely this moment, a television light, aimed at the podium, went on. In the bright glare the video screen appeared to be blank. Unaware, Dr. Hunter read on. Throughout, there were no principals' faces to be seen. By the time the TV light went dark, the video camera was trained on his features again.

Most of the people who make a career of studying education arguethat good principals are crucial to a school's success. The mayor, who clearly subscribes to this view, has said again and again that he wants to bypass the bureaucracy and help schools to help themselves.

"I urged him several times," the mayor said yesterday, "to build the school system from the bottom up, not from the top down."

Mr. Schmoke thought such an approach was understood from the superintendent's first days. Yet every time the mayor thought he had reached an understanding, Dr. Hunter pursued a divergent course.

Dr. Hunter tightened the reins on principals. He told them not to speak out in public. He has emphasized not school-by-school improvement but overarching, systemwide projects: bureaucratic reorganization, a massive rewriting of the curriculum.

Inevitably, the two men clashed.

Dr. Hunter came to Baltimore in August 1988 and the following winter was presented with a plan to adopt a new program at the Barclay School, a plan that had been prepared under the direction of Barclay's principal, Gertrude Williams. Dr. Hunter not only rejected the proposal but seemed to be going out of his way to do so in a manner that would demonstrate his unwillingness to relinquish any control over his schools.

An uproar ensued, and when it died down the mayor quietly told Dr. Hunter to let the project go ahead. The mayor thought the superintendent had agreed to do so, but no action came. For months, the superintendent balked. Finally, Mr. Schmoke called a news conference to announce that he was ordering Dr. Hunter to let the project go ahead.

A year ago, Mr. Schmoke began hounding the superintendent over the lack of planning going on at individual schools -- that is, by the system's principals. Dr. Hunter struck the mayor as being less than enthusiastic about encouraging principals to plan for themselves.

By last spring, a plan put forward by the teachers union to allow 20 schools considerable latitude in their operations had won the strong backing of the mayor -- and, again, it seemed to Mr. Schmoke that Dr. Hunter was dragging his feet. For five months the plan languished before it finally won approval this fall.

Here was the superintendent resisting the mayor on the issue the mayor felt to be paramount -- giving individual schools, and principals, more power.

Frustrated, the mayor has set up teams of community leaders and principals to try to work out for themselves solutions to their problems.

On Monday, one such group, consisting of principals and activists from East Baltimore, met and concluded -- publicly -- that North Avenue was a hindrance, not a help, and that they must shield themselves from North Avenue if they are to solve their problems. Such a declaration of open rebellion would have been astonishing under Dr. Hunter's more relaxed predecessors; came during the tenure of a superintendent who insisted on control.

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