City school chief to quit

Low-profile Booker ready to 'pass baton' at end of term in June

Some seek stronger leader

System more sound fiscally, but students still underachieving

January 12, 2000|By Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich | Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Robert Booker, the low-profile Baltimore education chief, announced last night that he is quitting after a short tenure in which he restored financial stability to the system but made little significant progress in turning around underachieving schools.

Ending five days of intense speculation, Booker informed the school board that he will leave when his two-year contract is up June 30 and sooner if a replacement is found.

Booker, 69, who chose the Baltimore post over a comfortable life in California 18 months ago, said he is ready to "pass the baton." He said he has built a solid foundation that leaves the long-troubled school system "positioned to demonstrate continuous improvement in student achievement."

His decision comes after board members and civic leaders questioned his leadership of the city's vaunted, multimillion-dollar school reform efforts. The board expressed regret and gave Booker a standing ovation last night but apparently did not ask him to stay.

"I am saddened," said board President J. Tyson Tildon. "He has made a contribution, not just to the district but to the community."

Booker's announced departure forces the city into another search at a time when neighboring Howard and Baltimore counties are also competing for superintendents from a small pool of talented candidates nationwide. It marks Baltimore's third attempt in four years to find someone for the job that carries a $185,000 yearly salary and the daunting responsibility of trying to revive 184 schools eroded by decades of decline.

Education leaders, parents and civic groups credited Booker with bringing business knowledge and a steadying hand to a school system that had endured much turmoil.

Some said last night that they hope the city can find a stronger leader. Others expressed concern that yet another change will be disruptive to newly begun classroom initiatives and, possibly, the city's attempts to win $49 million in additional aid from the state legislature.

"We still have a lot of hurdles to cross. We will have an interruption in the little progress we have made," said Michael Hamilton, president of the Parent and Community Advisory Committee.

Mayor Martin O'Malley called Booker "very capable and stabilizing."

Now, O'Malley said, "I think we need a hard-charging change agent that will take the school system to a new level."

Mixed reviews

Booker's move came after mixed reviews from the board, which had been debating for weeks whether to renew his contract.

Board members said they respected Booker and felt he had achieved one of their top priorities, straightening out the system's finances.

The board had recruited Booker largely because of his fiscal expertise.

He was the top financial officer of San Diego County and had a six-figure pension from managing the budget for the Los Angeles school system.

Booker took pride in ending overspending and said he had cut costs that resulted in $64 million in savings.

He brought in as his chief academic officer Betty Morgan, who is well known for hiring better-qualified teachers and principals.

`A great gift'

"I think having a person in that job whose honesty and integrity is above reproach has been a great gift to the city," said Sam Stringfield, a Johns Hopkins University education researcher who is a school board member.

Yet in interviews before Booker's announcement, no board member described him as a bold visionary.

Many said they were impatient that the school system is still so far behind. In the last round of statewide testing, the overwhelming majority of city students failed.

"He is not a dynamic person, and he hasn't taken the limelight," board member Dorothy Siegel said before Booker's decision. "I don't know whether that is good or not."

Some dissatisfaction

Board members had conveyed their dissatisfaction to Booker while evaluating his job performance this fall, according to sources close to the board. Their final discussion with him was shortly before the holidays.

Several board members were surprised when Booker said last week that he was considering whether he wanted to remain in the high-pressure job. Still, they apparently did not make any attempt to meet with Booker before he told them privately at 3 p.m. yesterday, hours before he made his public statement, that he was leaving.

Booker's cautious manner was a change for a city accustomed to charismatic and combative superintendents.

He said he had a "passion for education" and felt a moral obligation to help urban schoolchildren, and that his schooling had lifted him out of poverty.

Yet his private, shy nature made it difficult for him to seek out the spotlight the way his predecessors did.

He followed Robert Schiller, the chief executive for 11 months, who began by calling the school system "academically bankrupt."

Schiller was preceded by the high-profile Walter G. Amprey, who was superintendent from 1991 to 1997, when the city gave up partial control of its schools in return for $254 million in new state aid.

Bonnie Copeland, executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit organization that assists in city schools, said she had mixed feelings about Booker's departure.

"The first word that came to mind was bittersweet," she said, "bitter in that the system is losing a kind, gentle man who cared deeply about children, yet sweet in knowing that the basic fiscal structure is in place so that the system can focus on real standard-based reform."

Tildon promised that Booker will not be a lame-duck administrator in his final six months.

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools, also thanked Booker.

"I want him to do what he wants to do," she said. "I recognize how challenging and difficult his job is."

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