City schools face rocky time after Hunter

December 23, 1990|By Kathy Lally

Baltimore's next superintendent of schools will find 180 schools, 10,000 employees and 108,000 children who are ill-prepared to measure up to the stringent education demands that lie ahead.

As Maryland develops tough new tests to assess what comes out of the schools instead of what goes into them -- to rate schools for the first time by their students' performance instead of the size of their classes or the number of textbooks -- schools and principals will take on profound importance. A principal may well tower above a superintendent.

Last week, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke made his choice between the two. He demanded that Richard C. Hunter leave the $125,000-a-year superintendent's job when his contract expires in July. Dr. Hunter, he said, had ignored principals.

The superintendent thought he could make change without personally urging on the principals. His favorite term was "operationalizing."

"Dr. Hunter is a good planner," Mr. Schmoke said. "He can write things about where we should be moving. But he's not the strong leader needed for a resource-constrained school system."

In this new age of "accountability," of public scrutiny on individual results rather than on the systemwide averages that tend to obscure responsibility, Baltimore stands in a precarious position.

More than 60 of its 180 principals have worked 30 or more years in the system, making retirement an attractive possibility for many of them.

Three of the city's 21 middle schools are operating without principals because of the death of one and midyear retirement of two others.

Despite widespread failure in the school system, only one principal received an unsatisfactory rating last year.

None of the 5,600 tenured teachers was fired for poor performance.

And 450 teachers did not qualify for teaching certificates, 142 of them because they had not passed the National Teachers Exam.

Of the uncertified teachers, 125 were teaching in special education, which normally requires specialized courses. Special education has been so poorly run in the city that its operations are now subject to a consent decree resulting from the settlement of a lawsuit against the city.

Last week, 200 long-term substitutes were teaching in Baltimore classrooms, covering 30 teaching jobs that remained vacant and filling in for long-term illnesses and leaves of absence. Substitutes need have no teaching qualifications whatsoever.

The pervasive problems of poor student achievement, of course, were not created by Dr. Hunter. He inherited them from previous superintendents, who weren't able to make a dent in them, either.

But when Alice G. Pinderhughes, Dr. Hunter's predecessor, left office, she left behind not only a sense of harmony but momentum. Mayor Schmoke had made education one of his top priorities. The business community was eager to help out. There was a sense that at last the possibility for change was near.

The mayor said Dr. Hunter had squandered the good will he found.

"Where we needed unity, we now have division," he said.

Mayor Schmoke insisted that he had never expected the superintendent to perform miracles on a poverty-stricken school system that has been deeply troubled for years. "What I did expect," the mayor said, "was steady progress, a new direction and new thinking."

The superintendent insisted he had made progress -- he distributed last month a 30-page booklet detailing his accomplishments. But Dr. Hunter had concentrated on changes from the top down, reorganizing the bureaucracy, rewriting the curriculum and laying out a long-term plan that required an unattainable budget increase of $130 million a year or more.

At the same time, according to many accounts, headquarters was in disarray.

After Dr. Hunter arrived in August 1988, he spent what was reportedly close to a quarter of a million dollars on reorganizing his bureaucracy. He hired four consultants and had the loan of a fifth. They created an entirely new administrative organization.

"Dr. Hunter took the whole machine apart," one insider described it.

"He put all the parts on the table. Then he got rid of all the mechanics and brought in a whole new crew to put the machine back together. In the meantime, some of the parts fell off the table. They're still trying to figure out how to make it work."

North Avenue was left mired in gloom and low morale. When Dr. Hunter was asked recently what he was going to do about it, sources said, he suggested hiring a consultant.

Samuel L. Banks, director of instructional support for the school system, said the whole reorganization damaged school operations. The people Dr. Hunter brought in didn't know the system, he said. They didn't bother to find out much about the abilities, accomplishments or weaknesses of the people already there.

Some incompetent people were promoted, he said, and some gifted administrators were demoted.

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