City schools chief considers leaving

As school board mulls future, so does Booker

January 07, 2000|By Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich | Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

At a time of diminishing confidence in his leadership, Baltimore education chief Robert Booker is considering whether he wants to keep the difficult job of trying to revive a school system beset by decades of decline.

Booker, the calm, deliberative chief executive officer hired 18 months ago, said he would announce his decision next week. He intends to inform the school board privately Tuesday -- and make his plans public that night at the regular meeting.

"If I'm not going to be here," Booker said this week, "I want to give the board ample time to find a replacement."

Though he has six months left in his two-year contract, Booker, 69, isn't waiting for the school board to act. Board members say they have not come to a consensus on whether they want to extend the contract of the man they credit with straightening out the school district's finances but fault for not doing enough to hasten classroom reform.

"Coming to grips with this is not easy," said J. Tyson Tildon, the school board president.

"I think he has the kind of temperament that is lacking in oomph," said Patricia L. Morris, a board member and dean of the school of education at Morgan State University. "He got the system on the right track -- [but] not moving as fast as it needs to move."

Booker is making up his mind even as school officials and civic leaders are growing increasingly impatient that multimillion-dollar reform efforts have not translated into more tangible results. Overwhelming numbers of city students routinely fail state tests.

"A leader should look to newer and more innovative ways of educating our children, and be willing to take some risks," said 5th District Councilwoman Helen Holton. "At this point, we have nothing to lose."

One school official envisioned several possible scenarios. The board could ask Booker to stay on as the schools' chief for another year. Or Booker, who gave up the prospect of comfortable retirement in California, could make a graceful exit.

Still, Booker has the support of Mayor Martin O'Malley, who says he wants "stability in the school system."

"He seems like a pretty capable individual," O'Malley said. "He works for the school board, and it's up to them to evaluate. I like the guy, personally."

Booker's possible departure is troublesome to some because of the timing. The school system will soon be asking the state legislature for a large increase; at the same time it faces a likely takeover of a group of failing schools.

School officials and community activists also recognize the pool of talented big city superintendents is small.

Across the country, school superintendents often bounce from city to city like baseball managers, moving on again when they don't produce results fast enough. Baltimore's last nationwide search lasted a year and yielded few credible candidates.

"I think it would be unfortunate for the system to have to go through a disruption at this time. I think you have to be realistic," said one activist who follows the schools closely but who declined to be identified. "Would I like to see a stronger leader? Yes. Can we get someone better? Don't know."

The Baltimore superintendent's job -- which carries a $185,000 yearly salary and the responsibility for 103,000 schoolchildren -- was restructured not long before Booker came. Even the job title was changed -- to chief executive officer -- under a city-state partnership that emphasized the need to run the schools more like a business.

After betting on the quick fixes promised by high-profile superintendents, the city turned to Booker -- a grandfatherly accountant who had never taught in a classroom but understood finances and had been in charge of a $3 billion school budget in Los Angeles.

In a city accustomed to charismatic, combative superintendents, Booker has been much less of a presence. He is reluctant to make bold promises. He rarely cheerleads.

He doesn't seek the spotlight like Walter G. Amprey, who, during the early 1990s, experimented with privatizing a dozen city schools and refused to heed a federal judge over the district's management of special education. Booker doesn't move with the speed of Robert E. Schiller, his immediate predecessor, who spent 10 months cleaning house and writing a blueprint to repair the fractured education system.

Booker "is respected by those who know him," said Donald P. Hutchinson, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "The general business community has a minimal impression. If Dr. Booker walked down the street and saw a half a dozen CEOs, two might say `hi,' and four would say, `who's he?' "

A month after Booker came, church leaders started a campaign to get more parent volunteers in the schools. But the effort, called "Doing Our Part for Our Children, Our Schools," never got off the ground. Booker acknowledges that the school system failed to follow through, and says he and the ministers are trying to begin anew.

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