Schools chief post down to 3 finalists Baltimore City board scheduled to meet with candidates today

May 09, 1998|By Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie | Stephen Henderson and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore City school board has winnowed its choices for a permanent chief executive officer to three finalists: a San Diego County finance officer, a high-ranking school administrator from New York City and the former chief executive of a local institution.

Board members -- citing the candidates' desires for confidentiality -- refused to divulge any of the candidates' names. But The Sun has learned that two of the finalists are Robert Booker, the auditor and controller for San Diego County, Calif., who was formerly head of finance for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who supervises low-performing schools in New York City's central school district.

All three candidates will be in town today to meet with the board and community representatives to begin what board members hope will be the final round of interviews.

If one of them meets with everyone's satisfaction, the new schools chief could be hired by the end of this month,board members said this week. But board members also say it is possible, although not likely, that none of these three is a perfect match for the job. That could delay the process by as much as another month, board members said.

"Of the scores and scores of people we've interviewed, we feel these three are the best to be considered for the job at this time," said board member Ed Brody, who has been the board's point person during the search. "It's our desire to bring this process to conclusion as soon as possible."

Meeting today

Brody would not disclose where the meeting with the three candidates would be held and said that it is not open to the public. The secrecy surrounding the interviews is in keeping with the board's hush-hush approach to the search from the beginning, but it contrasts sharply with the way other school districts -- both big and small -- have managed their executive searches.

In the last few years, Los Angeles; Fort Worth, Texas; Atlantic City, N.J.; and Boston have conducted searches in which they publicly announced their finalists, and in some cases have held public forums with the candidates.

"We're not making the names public because the candidates do not want their names made public at this time," Brody said.

The candidates will meet with representatives from the city teachers' and principals' unions, the plaintiffs in the federal special education lawsuit, the parent-community advisory board, Baltimore Education Network and a city schools student.

The community groups will be there to observe, Brody said, not to participate in the interviews.

The candidates will also meet with other officials while they are in Baltimore, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and key legislators. Booker and Byrd-Bennett have widely divergent backgrounds, but both appear to meet some of the qualifications the board has established for the job.

Revered by finance officers

Booker has nearly 40 years' experience in the Los Angeles schools and another six managing San Diego County's $2 billion annual budget.

In Los Angeles, Booker rose from an accounting position to become one of the district's highest-ranking African-American administrators, and in the early 1990s guided efforts to keep the struggling school system solvent. Los Angeles Unified cut its $3.9 billion annual budget by almost one-third over three years under Booker's control.

Booker ran afoul of his school board and superintendent when a 1992 midyear budget shortfall forced further deep cuts in the school district's budget. But he was redeemed when it was discovered that he had actually warned the higher-ups of impending doom years before, and had made several ignored recommendations to correct the problems.

Soon after, he retired to take his current position in San Diego. He was described in some press clippings as revered by school finance officers throughout California.

Manages troubled schools

Byrd-Bennett is superintendent of a "chancellor's district" in New York City, which is made up of 10 of the city's most troubled schools, according to published accounts.

Now in her late 40s, she has spent most of her career in New York's public schools. A former elementary school teacher and principal of a Manhattan school from 1984 to 1992, she also held an administrative job in charge of curriculum.

But she has received credit for starting a turnaround in school District 17 in New York City from 1994 to 1996. When she took over the 25-school district with a budget of $100 million, it had myriad problems. The schools chancellor had ousted the former superintendent and the local board.

By the time she left, math test scores had risen from a pass rate of 46.8 percent to 48.8 percent, and reading scores had risen from 38.5 percent to 40.2 percent.

In addition, the number of students who were referred to special education dropped.

Creating candidate pool

The board's search for a permanent chief has been marked by frustration and disappointment since it began last August.

For months, board members interviewed dozens of candidates but were unable to settle on a choice or pick finalists.

About three months ago, board members thought they had finally found their man -- a former bank vice president from California who dazzled them. But he backed out, and there were no comparable alternatives.

At the same time, board members ran out of patience with Heidrick & Struggles, the national firm they hired to conduct the search. The board decided to create a pool of candidates on its own.

"We're not at square one, but we're probably only at square two," one board member said at the time.

Since then, the board has interviewed dozens of applicants from around the country, and some board members say they have been happier with the mix.

"We feel good about the candidates we have now," Brody said. "We're just hoping to wrap things up as soon as we can."

Pub Date: 5/09/98

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