No time to waste in search for new chief

City schools: Board must commit to filling top job by the time Booker leaves in June

January 13, 2000

THAT TICKING you hear is the city school board's meter running -- fast. T-minus five months, two weeks and three days until Robert Booker's contract expires.

That's a virtual millisecond in the world of searches for urban school leaders, where a year or 18 months can sometimes go by without even a list of finalists. The message, then, should be clear: The quest for a dynamic replacement should have started yesterday.

Without a doubt, the best possible scenario would be for Dr. Booker's successor to land in Baltimore by June 30. The city schools don't need an interim chief or a prolonged vacuum at the top.

They need new leadership to kick reform back into drive. Can the city's children afford to wait much longer for that to happen?

Some upcoming events suggest the board shouldn't delay:

An audit of the past two years of city school reform will likely note some progress since the city/state partnership began, but could also point up serious academic and business failures.

The state board of education may privatize as many as five of the worst city schools.

The school board is asking the governor to kick in $48 million more to help speed reform.

School board members knew when they hired Dr. Booker (at age 68) that he wasn't the one to take the system to the top. Instead, he was a bridge to get the system over the tough early years of reform. Now it's time for someone to push the system to excellence -- someone with a strong management and business background who will force change on the system's culture of non-performance.

That's who state legislators had in mind when they created the city/state school governance partnership and the CEO job in 1997. That's also who would best complement the other leaders the system has in place: strong curriculum specialist Betty Morgan as chief academic officer, and a capable accountant in chief financial officer Roger Reese.

As a postscript, we can say this about Dr. Booker: He handled his two-year tenure with unparalleled grace. Even in the way he announced his departure, he set an example that the next chief would do well to follow.

Baltimore simply needs more than Dr. Booker had to give to restore achievement and vitality to its public schools.

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