Does Baltimore really need a school board?

Mike Bowler

January 07, 1991|By Mike Bowler

NOW THAT the city school board has voted not to renew Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's contract when it expires this July, a window of opportunity opens. Here are three suggestions for bold moves the board might make. The first two have to do with choosing a successor to Dr. Hunter. The third is related to the board itself.

1. Appoint a non-educator. Clearly, one of Hunter's liabilities is that he has the instincts of a university-trained educator. Educators often lack the necessary political, business and human relations savvy to head a $503 million-a-year enterprise like the Baltimore system. It was the lack of such acumen that got Hunter in the imbroglio over a new curriculum at Barclay School and that led him to reorganize the North Avenue bureaucracy without even consulting most of those affected.

In choosing a superintendent, the presumption ought to be against educators, who receive little or no university training in business management or other skills needed to run big-city school systems. With 18 of the nation's largest districts conducting searches for school chiefs, and with the list of available educators growing shorter by the week, it's imperative that Baltimore innovate.

There is a precedent in Maryland. When the state Board of Education hired David Hornbeck as state superintendent 15 years ago, it was criticized for turning to a non-educator. But Hornbeck, a preacher and lawyer, served three consecutive four-year terms with great success. He never seemed hampered by the lack of a doctorate in education.

2. Hire co-superintendents, one to handle education and one to run the business side of the system. Hunter and J. Edward Andrews Jr. essentially have been co-superintendents since last spring, when the latter was brought in at Mayor Schmoke's insistence to help Hunter run the system. The arrangement has worked well, but the roles of the two men have never been defined clearly. Now the system may need someone to concentrate exclusively on financial matters, freeing an educator to worry about what goes on in the classrooms.

3. Disband. Yes, the school board ought to consider putting itself out of business on the grounds that a city with Baltimore's political and educational structure has no need for a Board of School Commissioners.

A century ago there certainly was a need. In 1895, the Democratic Party was thrown out of office in Baltimore, and a reform element took over. At the time, city schools were ruled by a 24-man board, one from each political ward. His chief job was to distribute political patronage. A new charter was adopted, giving the mayor the power to appoint a nine-member board that was to be "entirely out of the field of political and religious differences and controversies." (The charter would have to be amended, and new state legislation enacted, in order to get rid of the board.)

Even in the early 1980s, the schools were more independent than they are now. But since the mid-1980s, the major financial decisions have been made at City Hall (which also lobbies in Annapolis in behalf of the schools), while the major educational decisions have been made by the superintendent. The major personnel decisions, meanwhile, are made at City Hall, where Mayor Schmoke has made education the top priority of his administration. Recall that it was he who decided to replace Alice G. Pinderhughes, Hunter's predecessor. It was he who rejected the board's first choice for superintendent in 1988 in favor of Hunter. And it was Schmoke, not the board, who determined last month to let Hunter go. (The board reportedly had been ready to renew the Hunter contract, at least for a year.)

In the majority of the nation's 15,600 school districts, which are elected and set their own tax rates, Schmoke would have been criticized as a scandalous interferer. But not in Baltimore, where the school board is, for all intents and purposes, a department of city government and where the mayor, unlike school commissioners, has a political constituency to serve -- and to please.

Such leaders as Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Maryland state Board of Education (a former president of the city board), and Mark K. Joseph, another former board president, favor elimination of the city school board. "I'd vote to get rid of the board any day," said Joseph.

In Boston, meanwhile, the City Council voted Dec. 5 to abolish the city school board, known as the school committee. "When the authority is divided between the mayor, the City Council and the school committee," Paul Parks, a Boston civic leader, wrote in the Boston Globe, "it leaves an opening for these entities to deny fault, which in turn frustrates the public to the point where it becomes distrustful of all three entities. As a result, the children suffer."

Embry also argued that abolishing the school board would free the superintendent from having to spend so much time pleasing commissioners. And, he said, it would force the City Council to provide better oversight of the schools.

Critics in Boston said abolishing the school board would politicize the education system. Parks said he had a rejoinder. "I proposed a Boston police committee," he said. "I was immediately admonished. No one would be willing to see the police become so political. I rested my case."

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