Field cut to 6 in search for new city schools chief

Fla. woman believed to be panel's choice over local candidates

May 03, 2000|By Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich | Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

The search for a new leader for Baltimore's underachieving school system has been narrowed to six candidates, including strong local contenders and administrators from large urban districts.

A search committee has sifted through 50 resumes, interviewed prospective candidates and is trying to choose three finalists, one of whom will replace Robert Booker as chief executive officer in July.

"We've narrowed the pool and we are doing a little more background checking," Michele Noel, a school board member heading the search, said yesterday. "We hope to make a decision [on finalists] by the end of the week or early next week."

The six candidates include the city's chief academic officer, a former Baltimore school board member and a Broward County, Fla., associate superintendent of schools, sources close to the search say.

The selection comes midway through an ambitious effort to reform a school system beset by decades of decline.

Booker's two-year contract ends June 30, at the halfway mark in a five-year partnership between the city and state that is bringing $254 million in new state aid. Civic leaders, lawmakers and parents are watching closely for improved student performance in schools that consistently rank near the bottom of the state in test scores.

This search varies significantly from that of two years ago, when the board hired a national search firm and interviewed candidates with business expertise nearly a year before announcing their choice of Booker, whose background was entirely in school and county finance.

This time, the board has eschewed the help of a search firm and adhered to a four-month timetable. While board members have never criticized Booker's lack of academic experience, they have pointedly advertised for a chief executive who has been an educator.

The process is far more open than it has been in many years. The school board appointed an advisory committee of community representatives to review resumes and give recommendations to the board, a task completed last week.

The public will be given an opportunity to meet the three finalists this month, Noel said, though the forums have not been chosen.

Sources say the advisory committee's top choice is Carmen Varela-Russo, associate superintendent for technology, strategic planning and accountability in Broward County, a system more than twice the size of Baltimore's that includes Fort Lauderdale.

From 1990 to 1993, she was chief executive for public high schools in New York City, where she led reforms. Varela-Russo was a finalist last year for the Broward County superintendent's job, which went to an outsider.

"She is very good at bringing together disparate groups to work for the same purpose. She's also not going to let politics or people's special interests get in the way of her special mission, which has kids at the center," said John Ferrandino, president of the National Academy Foundation, a nonprofit group that supports career academies in high schools and has worked with Varela-Russo.

The advisory panel also recommended an insider, Betty Morgan, the city's respected chief academic officer who has been in charge of leading educational reforms while Booker managed the school system. Morgan has spent the majority of her career in Maryland schools, beginning in 1979 in Montgomery County, where she was principal of a national Blue Ribbon elementary school and later the manager of one of the county's seven school districts.

She moved to Frederick County in 1995 to become associate superintendent for curriculum, administration and school improvement, and was selected by Booker 18 months ago to be chief academic officer.

Sources say another strong local contender is Bonnie Copeland, who was vice president of the school board until last year when she married and moved out of the city. Copeland was credited with being a voice of compromise and steadiness on the board.

She resigned from her volunteer job on the school board as well as her paying job at the Greater Baltimore Committee last year to become director of the Fund for Educational Excellence. The fund has helped institute reform measures in more than a dozen city elementary schools this year.

The board is also said to be considering James Harris, a former superintendent in Buffalo, who resigned after a scandal marred his administration last year. A project administrator in the grants division of the Buffalo school system pleaded guilty in February to the theft of $22,000 and could receive up to seven years in prison.

"There was never any suggestion, nor any innuendo that [Harris] had any complicity in it," said Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark. But Clark said school board members criticized Harris for lack of oversight.

Harris began his career in Detroit as a teacher and assistant principal. He was superintendent for North Chicago public schools from 1994 to 1996, before becoming superintendent in Buffalo.

Sources say Skipp Sanders, deputy superintendent for administration for the Maryland State Department of Education, also is among the final six. A former Baltimore teacher, Sanders has spent most of his career in the state Education Department and is now second in command under state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

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