Baltimore looks to region's talent for schools chief

January 13, 1991|By Gelareh Asayesh

David W. Hornbeck was misidentified in yesterday's editions in a listing of area people being mentioned in the search for a new Baltimore school superintendent. Mr. Hornbeck was state superintendent of schools and secretary-treasurer of the State Board of Education until June 1988.

Three years ago, when Baltimore went shopping for a superintendent, it looked all over the nation for an expert -- someone with experience in urban education, someone who would bring that specialized knowledge to the herculean task of resuscitating the city's troubled schools.

It chose Richard C. Hunter, a University of North Carolina education administration professor with experience in two urban school systems: Dayton, Ohio, and Richmond, Va.


Now, as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the school board hurry to launch a new search for a superintendent, they are reversing the criteria that brought them Dr. Hunter, who was told last month that his contract would not be renewed when it expires July 31.

They don't want a new strategy for success -- they feel the city has come up with a solid strategy of its own: a plan to shift control away from central administration and to individual schools. Instead, they want someone to execute that plan.

They don't want a national search if they can avoid it. Instead, they want someone who knows the city and has ties here.

They don't want an expert in urban education -- the candidates don't even necessarily have to be educators.

"The things that we have put in place now -- restructuring, decentralization -- we want those carried out," said school board member Linda C. Janey. "We're sort of tired of the system being disrupted. We feel that one day, one week, one month is a lot out of a child's life. We want some stability."

Baltimore, in fact, wants to get off the circuit traveled by big-city superintendents, a relatively small number of top administrators who often hop from district to district.

Their average tenure, according to the Council of Great City Schools, a national association of the country's 47 biggest school districts, is 2.5 years -- the same length of time that Dr. Hunter has been in Baltimore.

Sometimes, superintendents leave for better opportunities. Sometimes, like Dr. Hunter, they leave because their relationships with their bosses sour.

But Baltimore is losing faith in the idea that expertise is transferable.

"There's this group of people who have developed expertise in urban education, so you keep bringing that same group of people in for consideration for your type of job," said board member James C. Cusack. "So they come in and they're unfamiliar specifically and they're there for a few years. Then they run into particular problems and move on. And then you're doing it all over again.

"We'd like to take a step away from that syndrome. It doesn't seem to be working. You want someone with an investment in the community."

A side benefit of this decision is that the city is bypassing the stiff national competition of at least 19 large school systems currently shopping for new superintendents. They include Montgomery County; Washington, D.C.; Boston; Miami; Detroit; Los Angeles; Chicago; Milwaukee; Houston; Hartford, Conn.; Columbus, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; St. Louis; Memphis, Tenn.; Austin, Texas; Savannah, Ga.; and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.

The decision to look locally reflects a feeling that Baltimore doesn't need an education guru -- just a talented executive.

The guru will be Mayor Schmoke, who has staked his political reputation on improving the city's schools and is running for re-election this year. In the past year, Mr. Schmoke increasingly took upon himself the role that Dr. Hunter shunned -- attending to the needs and complaints of school principals.

He announced last month that he had lost faith in Dr. Hunter, after more than a year of controversies that increasingly pitted the mayor against his hand-picked choice for superintendent. The superintendent has been criticized for his preoccupation with management charts, a tendency toward centralized control and an unresponsiveness to principals. Dr. Hunter has denied that he performed poorly, saying he attempted to streamline the system.

Current plans for searching out a successor suggest that Mr. Schmoke has also lost confidence in the process that brought him Dr. Hunter, who at the time was touted as a national expert on urban education and was also a candidate for the Washington superintendent's job. Ironically, the district school board rejected the national expert in favor of a native son, Andrew E. Jenkins. Mr. Jenkins was fired early last month.

This time around, the Baltimore school board plans to conduct its own search rather than leaving it up to a consultant to scour lists of candidates from around the nation. Dr. Hunter was chosen from a field of 72 candidates.

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