Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's invitation to former state school Superintendent David W. Hornbeck to become a candidate for the city school superintendency has revived speculation on a recurring question: Can the black mayor of this majority black city with its majority black school population opt for a white school superintendent?
The answer, says Mr. Schmoke, is yes.
"Race is not going to be the controlling issue," Mr. Schmoke said yesterday when asked about Mr. Hornbeck, who is white. "I know it will be an issue for some people, but I've talked to [parents and community leaders], and what they have said is, 'Find us the best candidate for our children because they deserve the best.' "
There are educators who believe that majority black districts benefit from having a black superintendent as a role model for children. Richard C. Hunter, the city's current school superintendent, is black. He lost the support of the mayor last December. His three-year contract will be allowed to expire July 31.
But educators and politicians acknowledge that the race question is a political one. Some say it is naive to think that Baltimore's black community, which has counted the school superintendency as a base of power for at least a decade, would give it up.
Others say if anyone could get away with such a move, it would be Mr. Schmoke.
Besides, disappointment with Dr. Hunter and frustration with the continuing problems of city schools have come to overshadow issues of race.
"I'm at a point, and have been for some time, that if a qualified Eskimo from Alaska comes on who can help youngsters in this school system learn, I will support that person," said Delegate Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore.
After the search first started in January, Mr. Schmoke approached a number of prominent black educators and businessman to interestthem in applying for the job.
They included, according to Mr. Schmoke and other sources: William L. Jews, a health administrator in Prince George's County; Freeman A. Hrabowski, a vice president at the University of Maryland Baltimore County; Paul Vance, the new superintendent of Montgomery County schools; and Louis Richardson, a retired city schools administrator.
Only one of those approached by the mayor, Walter G. Amprey, an associate superintendent in Baltimore County, became an applicant.
More recently, Mr. Schmoke has cited examples of majority black communities elsewhere that support white superintendents. And last week he called Mr. Hornbeck, Maryland's state superintendent from 1976 to 1988, who agreed Wednesday to become a candidate.
By yesterday evening, after a private meeting, board members were left with a total of nine candidates -- five black and four white -- who will be interviewed by the full board, said board member Stelios Spiliadis, who is heading the search.
In addition to Mr. Hornbeck, board members, in keeping with the mayor's wishes, added to their list four top administrators from within the school system, who are black -- Patsy B. Blackshear, Samuel L. Banks, Chester F. Preyar and Leonard D. Wheeler -- as well as former Montgomery County school Superintendent Charles M. Bernardo, who is white. The five had been eliminated by the board in April.
Meanwhile, board members cut from their original list of five candidates Jerome Clark, a Prince George's County associate superintendent, and Leonard M. Britton, former head of Los Angeles schools. Still under consideration are Lillian Gonzalez, an assistant superintendent in the District of Columbia, Mr. Amprey of Baltimore County and Alfred Tutela, former head of Cleveland schools. Mr. Tutela and Ms. Gonzalez are white.
Ultimately, it will probably be Mr. Hornbeck -- with his longtime ties to Baltimore and stature as a former state superintendent -- whose candidacy will serve as a trial balloon on the question of race and the Baltimore superintendency.
Said Joseph L. Smith, president of the school board: "My personal view is we should get the best person we can. [But] you have to look at the political and community reality We'll have to see what the reaction is."