New Twist for City School Board

June 02, 1991

The search for a new superintendent for Baltimore publi schools has taken a new twist. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has persuaded David W. Hornbeck, former state school chief, to talk with the school board about the job.

The mayor's insistence that the board consider new candidates -- and reconsider old ones -- is delaying completion of the process; the board had hoped to pick a new chief by the end of May. This is not a problem. There is no particular reason to have a superintendent in place by the end of the school year or even by the beginning of the new semester in September. Thanks to deputy superintendent J. Edward Andrews, plans are already in place for the next school year, and it is already too late to launch further initiatives by the fall. Better to do the job of selection right than to do it quickly.

Most troubling is what the process shows about relations between Mayor Schmoke and the school board. There aren't any open disputes, but there is a lack of understanding. The board is willing to do the mayor's bidding, but it doesn't always know what that entails.

During the now-ending superintendency of Richard C. Hunter, the school system responded to the mayor's wishes slowly, if at all. While the mayor was trying to encourage initiative by individual schools, Dr. Hunter rejected a curriculum plan worked out by parents and staff at Barclay Elementary -- until the mayor stepped in. Board members were reportedly on the verge of extending Dr. Hunter's contract until the mayor asked them to let it expire. And in the search for Dr. Hunter's replacement, the mayor and board often don't seem to be on the same page.

The problem is not that the mayor is involved. He made improvement of the public schools a key campaign promise. As graphically pointed out in "The Lessons of Change," a history of Baltimore schools published recently by the Fund for Educational Excellence, school superintendents don't last nearly as long as mayors. Of course, Mr. Schmoke could be fired by voters this fall. But as long as he is in office, it is appropriate that he take the lead in setting direction for the schools.

Though the mayor has appointed all the members of the school board, communication between Mr. Schmoke and board is not what it should be. When the panel finishes hiring the best superintendent it can find, it must address this problem.

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