Filling city schools slot: More jobs than seekers

Baltimore competing with New York, L.A.

January 14, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich and Liz Bowie | JoAnna Daemmrich and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

How hard will it be for Baltimore to find someone new to take charge of a school system where large numbers of children can't read, fail state tests and never finish high school?

Just ask Daniel A. Domenech.

Every week, he gets yet another call from a headhunter offering him plenty of money and prestige if he will only take the high-pressure job in an urban school district. The Fairfax County, Va., superintendent has been recruited by New York, Los Angeles and other cities that are increasingly desperate to rescue their schools.

Now Baltimore has to get in line. The impending departure of Robert Booker, schools chief for the past 18 months, is forcing Baltimore to compete for a successor with at least eight large cities -- as well as neighboring Howard and Baltimore counties.

"You are looking for Jesus -- on a good day," said Michael Usdan, president of the Institute for Educational Leadership.

Shortly before Booker came to Baltimore, the superintendency was restructured to emphasize running the 103,000-student district like a business. Even the title was changed, to chief executive officer.

But the name change didn't alter the challenges of running an inner-city school system: the entrenched bureaucracy, a shortage of qualified teachers and a student population that consistently ranks near the bottom in state tests.

The school board has not decided whether it wants to search again for a noneducator with financial expertise or look for someone with a more traditional academic background.

Booker, 69, the former chief financial officer of San Diego County and Los Angeles schools, was hired because of his business experience. The board credits Booker with straightening out finances, but some members and reformers fault him for not making enough progress in the classroom.

`Move us forward'

"Clearly, we're looking for someone who can build on the reforms we've instituted to date and move us forward aggressively," said C. William Struever, a city developer who serves on the board.

"As to what particular type, we're just beginning the process."

Several possible candidates have been mentioned since Booker announced this week that he would leave when his two-year contract ends June 30. He has agreed to leave sooner or stay longer if necessary.

Among them are: Betty Morgan, the school district's chief academic officer; Bonnie S. Copeland, executive director of the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence; John Erickson, a Baltimore-area builder of retirement communities; and Carol S. Parham, Anne Arundel County superintendent.

Past contender David Hornbeck, now Philadelphia's superintendent, has local support but said he is not interested.

Aggressive marketing

Board members would not say whether they have anyone in mind. They vowed to aggressively market it as an opportunity to lead a multimillion-dollar reform effort under way since 1997.

"This may be a parochial perspective, but I think Baltimore is poised to be the coolest town in America," Struever said.

"There's a ton of exciting things happening, wonderful support from the state, a new administration of the city and momentum in the marketplace. We're ready to turn the corner -- and schools are a key part."

Hiring is up to the board, but the new mayor, Martin O'Malley, said he won't be watching from the sidelines.

"I intend to be involved in the decision," O'Malley said. "Hopefully, the next person will really put the city in high gear."

The mayor and other civic leaders said they hope the city's third search in four years is swift and successful. They worry that frequent turnover at the top is slowing the pace of school reform -- and could jeopardize chances for $48 million in new state aid.

Democratic state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who chairs the Senate's budget committee, said "changing horses midstream" makes it more difficult "when you're asking for money."

"I'm concerned about what it means for progress," she said, "unless they can find someone right away."

That may prove difficult at a time when the number of talented candidates nationwide is extremely small.

Many superintendents who rose through the ranks are now of retirement age, education experts say, while younger ones are nervous about trying to live up to the demands of big city districts looking for a quick fix.

`Not terribly attractive'

"In large cities, the governance structure, the expectations and the resource squeeze make them not terribly attractive," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

"What people don't want to talk about is, all these districts have high concentrations of poverty that doesn't lend itself to quick solutions. If a kid comes in with vocabulary two years behind their peers in the suburbs, to think someone will turn that around immediately is a lot to ask for."

Competition for superintendents is fierce.

New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco and Las Vegas are among those recruiting now.

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