City School Board Finalists Culled From Circles Of Power

List Is Too Exclusive, Some Parents Say

April 22, 1997|By Stephen Henderson and Jean Thompson | Stephen Henderson and Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Many of the 21 finalists for the new board that will preside over the impoverished Baltimore school system are themselves highly educated business owners and top executives who live in the city's best neighborhoods.

They serve on the boards of the city's most esteemed institutions and academic centers. And they move in social circles that bring them within arm's reach of power, money and influence that most city residents -- and most city schoolchildren, in particular -- can only dream about.

But does that make them a mismatch for the gritty task of rebuilding one of America's decayed urban school districts?

Architects of the reform effort say they must entrust a $700 million budget, 14,000 employees, 179 schools and 100,000 children to managers with top-flight experience.

Some parent groups, meanwhile, think the list is too exclusive, proof that the reform effort is a power-grab by the state. They want seats in the boardroom and are not satisfied that their "place" in the planned reorganization is instead on a new parent advisory board.

"They aren't really including the ordinary parent in this process," said Rita Ridgley, president of the citywide council of parent-teacher associations. "We nominated people to be on the board, but none of them made this list of finalists. So how do we get our say?"

"There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done in this system, and you need people with senior managing experience," countered Christopher Cross, president of the state school board, which chose the finalists.

"The parent-advisory committee that was created under the reform is much more the channel for communication with the average parent or the average citizen."

By June 1, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must choose nine volunteer board members from among the 21 names culled by the state school board from more than 100 nominations.

The officials may reject the list and call for more names, but their final choices must fit the criteria outlined in the recently adopted city school reform law:

Four must have high-level managerial experience in a large company or nonprofit; three must have significant experience in education; one must be closely familiar with the needs of special education students; and at least one must be a parent.

Those specifications might help explain why these finalists were chosen. But some parents believe the state school board could have followed the rules and still come up with a list they consider less exclusive.

More than half of the 21 candidates live in areas such as Guilford, Roland Park, Mount Washington or Federal Hill -- some of the city's wealthiest.

At least 11 of the finalists serve or have served on boards for the city's private colleges, private primary and secondary schools, hospitals, nonprofit social organizations and cultural institutions such as the Lyric Opera and the Baltimore Symphony.

Only six of the 20 nominees contacted by The Sun have children in city schools, and the majority of those children attend Roland Park Elementary-Middle, one of the district's best.

According to Ed Freeman, a member of a local parent advocacy group, the candidates aren't exactly the kind of people most Baltimoreans would find living next door.

"They have assembled this list of very connected, very elite people who might serve the business interests in the state of Maryland, but won't likely serve the interests of the people of Baltimore or the children," said Freeman, secretary of Friends of Education, a group that fought for increased school funding and opposed the management reorganization.

"It's a power-grab, that's all. And it's right in line with the state's elitist approach to this city," Freeman said.

Freeman's group made five nominations for the board; only Arnita Hicks McArthur -- the current school board president -- made the finalists list. The others included local retirees, city workers and a lawyer; all but one are parents with children in city schools.

"The people we nominated met the criteria but weren't so elite," Freeman said.

In some years past, the mayor's appointed school board has been dominated by lawyers, academicians and business people. The current board includes retired and working business and government managers, a clothing store saleswoman and a community college professor.

Favoring achievers

The list of finalists for the new board includes midlevel managers and retirees, and service industry representatives. But by far, the list is weighted in favor of people who have achieved even higher rank.

Thirteen are black and eight are white; there are 12 women and nine men.

Persuading busy professionals to shoulder the taxpayer's burdens, endure public scrutiny and tackle previously intractable problems in urban education is feat enough, said supporters of the school reform effort.

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