Sondheim may head school board Former member, 89, being sought to unite Md. panel, sources say

July 24, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Walter Sondheim, who a half-century ago was part of the school board that would desegregate Baltimore schools in the ++ 1950s and who presided over the rebirth of downtown Baltimore in the 1960s, may become president of the Maryland State Board of Education.

He turns 90 tomorrow.

Although he has repeatedly said he is too old and wouldn't want to serve on a board that would elect someone his age as its leader, Sondheim is a front-runner for the post, sources said.

"I don't know what's going to happen," said Sondheim. He had no other comment on the election, which is set for Wednesday.

But a source close to the board said Sondheim was being sought, over his objections, to help keep statewide reforms on track and bring more cohesion to the 12-member board, which has shown fractures of late over the pace and direction of proposed changes.

Outgoing President Rose LaPlaca, whose board term is up, said last week she thought an effort was under way to draft the highly respected Sondheim.

He has served on the board three years.

"He has an extremely keen mind," said former board president Christopher T. Cross, president of the Council for Basic Education in Washington. "He has a wealth of experience. He is a consensus maker. He is someone who would bring enormous respect and stature, which is terribly important for whomever is head of the board. He has the energy, the disposition and the mental ability of someone half his age."

Last month, Sondheim led a successful effort to keep moving on high school reforms, which are controversial because they could prevent students who fail the proposed graduation tests from receiving diplomas.

Board member Raymond V. "Buzz" Bartlett said he had heard Sondheim "might be willing to do it and that there might be some interest [in his taking the post]."

But member Philip S. Benzil said "there have been no discussions in my awareness" about the presidency. Members John Wisthoff and Morris Jones also said they had no inkling of who might be chosen.

Benzil, a retired dentist from Westminster, and Wisthoff, who teaches at Anne Arundel Community College, said they would be interested in the presidency. Wisthoff led the Anne Arundel County school board for four years.

By law, the board must elect a president and vice president each July for a one-year term. Vice President Edward Andrews has repeatedly declined to move up.

Sondheim's school board experience goes back half a century to his tenure on the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners. After the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, he led the way toward integration of the school system.

He is also a guiding force in the changes affecting the state's schools today. In 1989, he was chairman of the Governor's Commission on School Performance, the group that produced what has come to be known as the Sondheim Report, the blueprint for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program designed to improve learning and teaching and make teachers and schools accountable for what students learn.

In the late 1960s, he was a key figure in the development of Charles Center downtown.

Over the years, he has been at the forefront in bringing business and government together.

Pub Date: 7/24/98

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