School leader needs vision and expertise, parents say

They want better management skills

January 12, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Robert Booker has qualities that many would like to see in the next city school chief: honesty, a calm exterior and a deliberative approach to solving problems.

But as the school board begins its third search in four years today, parents and community leaders say they want more: a stronger vision, better management skills and, ideally, a knowledge of education.

"We have had very quick, charismatic leaders before, and look where we are. Do we want someone who is highly controversial?" asked Michael Hamilton, president of the school board's Parent and Community Advisory Board.

Expecting Booker to announce his departure last night, teachers, parents and community activists had begun to think about the search for the the next school leader.

"People are desperate to have someone who actually knows how to run a bureaucracy," said Matthew Joseph, director of public policy for Advocates for Children and Youth, a nonprofit based in Baltimore.

Booker had a background in business and financial management, but he had never run a school system or a business.

The system, Joseph said, needs "someone who has very strong management skills over a large organization but who has an attitude of inclusiveness."

In 1997, when the state assumed some governance of the city schools, legislators changed the name of the top job from superintendent to chief executive officer, a shift that reflected the importance of having someone with a strong business background to run schools.

Today, the chief executive officer has a chief academic officer and a chief financial officer. Joseph and others said they believe the new structure is fundamentally sound and should be retained.

The problem, say some education and community officials, has been Booker's lack of expertise in education.

"I think there is a lot of argument for having an educator with strong administrative background because one of the complaints about the CEO has been that he doesn't know education," said Bebe Verdery, education reform director of the Maryland ACLU.

"You have to have someone with an education background to understand the problem in the schools," said Lorretta Johnson, head of a union representing paraprofessionals.

But all parties agree on this: the next CEO should be a strong leader who believes children can succeed, even those from troubled homes.

"Somehow, we have to find a way to address all the needs of the youngsters," said Thompkins Weaver Jr., who has two children at City College, a Baltimore high school.

"Not all children are coming to school reading-ready, but we have to find a way for them. I think it is important that the system set a standard and have those youngsters make that standard."

Parent and community leaders have not always been satisfied with how much they can influence school system affairs. They say the school board has often failed to solicit their opinions, or has ignored them when they were offered.

"I think we do want a dynamic person who can help bring the community together and rally then around school reform," Verdery said.

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