Shock therapy for city schools Getting tough: New school chief shows, with board backing, that procrastination will not be tolerated.

August 10, 1998

IT IS NOTHING short of shock therapy when the city's new school chief places 103 teachers on probation, demotes 11 principals and effectively dismisses the system's chief academic officer just three weeks before the start of a new year.

These moves send two unmistakable signals that are welcome: Robert Booker is in full control and, with the school board's backing, is serious about turning around Baltimore's troubled public education system.

Psychologically, these messages are necessary. Dr. Booker is directing them as much to the school board as to the system's 10,300 employees. As he should.

Division of labor

Though he reports to the school board, it is essential for Dr. Booker to establish quickly that he controls day-to-day management of schools and will not tolerate undue interference. The board sets policy; he implements it.

By and large, the board has understood this division of labor since the state-mandated overhaul of the failing city schools started more than a year ago.

It is only natural for Dr. Booker to remind the board of his ultimate management role. He knows the board became so enamored of Robert E. Schiller, the interim CEO, that it tried to hire him permanently. Dr. Schiller is gone now, and there ought to be no confusion or second-guessing.

It is equally important for Dr. Booker, 68, to make the system's entrenched bureaucracy understand that reforms begun under his predecessor will continue. The new CEO has unequivocally told teachers and principals that their performance determines their career progress -- as it should.

Several previous superintendents tried unsuccessfully to change the system's culture.

Walter G. Amprey, who preceded Dr. Schiller, repeatedly expressed his frustration with staff evaluations. Regardless of performance, all teachers were rated "excellent," he complained.

If he wanted to take action against a problem teacher, the favorable paper trail provided ammunition for legal challenges by employees.

Changing the culture

Dr. Amprey also lamented, but was unable to change, a practice at school headquarters in which an administrator's family ties or affiliation with churches, sororities and fraternities outweighed performance. This is the culture Dr. Schiller began to alter and Dr. Booker hopes to eradicate.

It will not be easy.

Dr. Booker's readiness to drop Searetha Smith, who was hired for the system's No. 2 post just six months ago, is a sign that he does not regard anyone's job as sacred.

Finding a quality replacement quickly is critical: Dr. Booker is a fiscal manager, not an educator. Meanwhile, the school board is moving ahead to correct inexcusable equipment deficiencies. Last week, it spent $24 million to buy one computer system to keep track of students and their records and a second to manage budget and financial data.

Dr. Booker and the school board have little time to fill principal vacancies and other key slots before the school year begins. But they are off to a solid start. To succeed, they need support from the whole Baltimore community -- from students and parents to politicians and labor unions.

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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