Time to look beyond Booker's tenure

Baltimore schools: System needs dynamic leader with energy, drive to complete the job.

January 11, 2000

IF city schools CEO Robert Booker tells his board tonight that he'd rather walk than sign a new contract, the board's response should be simple: OK.

Let's face it: Dr. Booker has hardly done the kind of bang-up job that would warrant protracted efforts by the school board to get him to stay.

That doesn't mean he's a lousy leader -- he's not. Or that he has a poor relationship with the board -- he doesn't.

But he has been quiet in a job that requires dynamism, and just adequate when the system needs an overachiever at the top. If he volunteers to step down when his contract expires in July (as he said he might at tonight's board meeting), it could be the school board's chance to do better.

When Dr. Booker came to Baltimore in mid-1998, opinion was split over whether he could shake the school system to its foundation. Some saw his laid-back style as a stabilizer; others feared it would send the wrong message to recalcitrant teachers and administrators. In the end, both were right. Dr. Booker deserves credit for riding steady herd on the education reforms enacted before he arrived and for bringing much-needed operating changes that he says have saved more than $25 million. He also built better relations with city and state officials and the federal judge who oversees the system's special education lawsuit.

But overall, his tenure has been unimpressive: Scores on state tests and local exams have not improved as he had hoped, and some schools have even gotten worse.

The system's business side is better than it was, but far from fully functional: Just last summer, a payroll screw-up left teachers without checks for a few weeks. And the system still hasn't gotten a firm hold on such issues as how to reduce the number of schools to match a shrinking population.

Even more disturbing, much of the school-reform momentum seems sapped. Think of the last time you heard really good news about city schools or about a smashing new program. Too often, people in Baltimore are asking: "What is Dr. Booker doing?"

The board can do better -- but members will likely need help. People weren't falling over themselves to take the CEO's job when the board unearthed Dr. Booker; they probably won't be now, either.

Baltimore's business leaders, who have long paid lip-service to lending a hand to the school district, can come through now by aiding the search, and perhaps by providing a proven, dynamic manager to serve as a short-term fill-in.

The board must also step up: A search cannot last a year or even eight months. Members must find a strong leader, and fast.

City taxpayers -- and more importantly, city children -- deserve that much.

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