Californian favored for city schools San Diego-area official seen as top candidate to be permanent chief

Three finalists interviewed

Board members also considering idea to divide responsibilities

May 12, 1998|By Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Robert Booker, the head financial officer in San Diego County, appears to be the leading candidate for Baltimore's first permanent school chief executive job, three knowledgeable education sources said yesterday.

However, the board is struggling with the idea that one person can manage the entire school system effectively, and is considering dividing up the responsibilities.

Of the three finalists interviewed Saturday by the school board and community members, Booker apparently has the combination the board is looking for: a strong background in business and education. He manages San Diego County's $2 billion annual budget, and previously handled a $4 billion budget for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Booker also escaped an impoverished background that some say will help him relate to the needs of the city's 109,000 students, most of whom are poor. Booker reportedly grew up in Texas in a house that lacked running water, left home at a young age and put himself through school.

"He is someone that many of our children can look up to and aspire to be like," said one source close to the search.

The two other candidates are Edward J. Kelly III, the former chief executive officer of Union Memorial Hospital, and Barbara Byrd-Bennett, a well-regarded New York City administrator who was put in charge of the city's most troubled schools. A former teacher and principal, she also was responsible for restoring order to a school district in New York and raising test scores there in two years.

Kelly, who left the hospital nearly two years ago, is the only Marylander, the only white candidate and the only one lacking a background in a large urban school district such as Baltimore.

Several interviews

The three candidates have been interviewed several times by the school board, and they endured marathon sessions last weekend when representatives from six education interest groups were invited to observe. They also have met with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, state schools Superintendent Nancy M. Grasmick and other key education figures.

Much of the board reportedly is most comfortable with Booker. But the entire board has not had a chance to discuss all three candidates since last weekend's meetings. The board also has not completed its review of the candidates' backgrounds.

"It's not a fait accompli yet," said one source close to the search. "But if we had to rank them at this point, I'd think Booker would be first."

Sources also appear to be impressed with Byrd-Bennett's strong academic background.

"Barbara seems the most focused, most energetic and to have the greatest passion about education and improving the school system," one source said, adding that she also appeared to have a strong personality that would serve her well in negotiating the brutal politicking that dogs city school culture.

However, sources said she lacks the business background the board is looking for in its first chief executive.

One source said the board is considering splitting the job of chief executive officer into two, creating a chief operating officer and a chief executive.

Under that scheme, Byrd-Bennett would be a likely candidate for being in charge of the daily operations of the schools, while Booker would lead the system by meeting with the business community, negotiating contracts and lobbying the legislature, the mayor and City Council.

Sources said Kelly, chief executive of Union Memorial for three years, also was impressive in interviews, but some were concerned that his background had been entirely in health care.

Some obstacles

Board members have encountered a number of obstacles since they began their search nine months ago. Legislators and board members said from the beginning that they wanted someone with a strong business background. But some high-ranking business people were scared off by the system's intractable problems and its entrenched bureaucracy, according to some sources.

Others have shied from the job because it requires public involvement and disclosure that most jobs in private industry do not. A source said about 10 high-powered candidates with business backgrounds have backed out since the search began.

Race has also affected the process. Some sources say if the board hires an African-American to do the job, that person might struggle to gain credibility with the city's mostly-white business community.

On the other hand, a white chief executive would have difficulty gaining trust and credibility with the city's mostly black school community.

"Through the interview process, we have begun to see all the different challenges to filling this job," said one source. "But we're getting closer, and we hope to have a decision about this in the next few weeks."

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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