Schools in transition

December 27, 1990

In light of the city school board's decision last week not to renew the contract of Superintendent Richard C. Hunter, it may be well to recall that Baltimore isn't the only city in the market for a schools chief. More than 15 major cities are seeking school chiefs from a dwindling pool of applicants. Little wonder such searches are getting harder, despite salaries that often top $100,000 a year.

The problems besetting urban school systems are legion, with educators having to confront everything from tight budgets, low reading scores and poor staff morale to crumbling buildings, high rates of violence, homelessness and drug abuse. Many administrators simply do not wish to burden themselves with the inevitable frustrations born of such jobs, which typically also carry the expectation of a quick educational turnaround. Indeed, so intractable are the difficulties that the viability of school governing structures themselves has been called into question.

As it embarks on yet another search for someone to lead its schools, Baltimore cannot escape this unhappy history any more than Boston, Washington, Milwaukee or the dozen or so other cities currently seeking new superintendents. But there may be a better way: Why not consider keeping the search in low gear for at least one year, in the meantime allowing the current deputy superintendent for operations to continue managing the system's day-to-day affairs while making the formulation of overall policy the joint responsibility of the school board and a cabinet-level official answerable directly to the mayor.

What we have in mind is a sort of "commissioner of education," not necessarily a professional educator, who would operate out of City Hall and whose duty would be to formulate with the board the broad goals and direction of the reform process, then work to build a strong, public consensus behind them. The deputy hired earlier this year to run the North Avenue headquarters could continue to do so from his office there.

Such a temporary arrangement could give the city more time to recruit the best available candidate for the post of superintendent while opening the system to new ideas and a fresh approach to problems. More importantly, perhaps, it might also help guard against a tendency in recent years for the mayor and schools chief to find themselves working at cross purposes.

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