Looking for saviors won't save schools

May 07, 2000|By Mike Bowler

SUFFERING FROM what one expert calls the "Messiah syndrome," Baltimore is again combing the nation for a school leader who can perform miracles overnight.

But the city's own experience suggests that the best choice for a successor to Chief Executive Officer Robert Booker is someone familiar with the city and its problems - someone in the back yard.

For one thing, there's a national shortage of saviors. Dozens of districts are dipping into a pool of candidates that's been evaporating for more than a decade. Baltimore, looking for its 11th school leader since 1960, is competing with a dozen urban systems, all looking for someone who can quickly do it all - raise the scores and the money, please the public and pacify the teachers.

With 103,000 students, Baltimore is up against the nation's largest and second-largest cities, New York (1.1 million students) and Los Angeles (711,000). Also looking for new school leaders are Detroit (167,455), Memphis (111,200) and San Francisco (61,000).

The same names keep appearing on short lists around the country, and superintendent musical chairs is a common game.

The San Francisco spot, for instance, has been vacant for almost a year, since Superintendent Bill Rojas abruptly left for the superintendency in Dallas.

The Detroit school board tried to hire John Thompson, the school chief in Tulsa. When that appointment was blocked, Thompson went to Pittsburgh. Each lateral move leaves a vacancy behind; when Carlos Garcia was hired last month as superintendent in Clark County, Nev. (Las Vegas), that opened the top job in Fresno, Calif., another urban district.

The game of musical chairs has created a growth industry in headhunters - firms, often founded by former superintendents, that recruit school chiefs for fees of up to $50,000.

Baltimore eschewed the help of a search firm this year after a terrible experience two years ago, when it hired Booker from San Diego, Calif., as chief executive officer. (Officials were unhappy with the candidates the firm came up with and ended up finding Booker on their own.)

It's also harder for job-hunting superintendents to keep their aspirations under wraps, a development that discourages some qualified candidates. The nation's education writers are joined in a computer network, keeping a close eye on comings and goings. One day last week, Anthony Amato, the Hartford, Conn., superintendent, was "outed" on the network as a candidate for superintendent in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Seattle and Las Vegas.

Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), insists there are plenty of qualified people to fill school chief jobs. But fewer talented people are applying, he says, and many are leaving for easier employment at consultancies, think tanks and search firms.

The reason is simple enough, and it's evident in the exhausted eyes of Booker, the departing 70-year-old Baltimore CEO.

The urban school superintendency may be the toughest public service job in America. In addition to managing 12,000 employees and an $800 million budget (while lobbying for more in Annapolis), Booker faces overwhelming pressure to raise test scores. Everything he says and does is set against a backdrop of poverty, homelessness, crime, drug abuse, racial tension, teen pregnancies and the like.

Although the AASA's Houston likens the job of superintendent to that of a baseball field chief - if the scores don't go up, replace the manager - there's one thing baseball has that education lacks: a farm system. School chiefs don't work their way up. They swing from city to city, needing a year or more in each to learn the ropes. (There's also a critical shortage of principals in many cities.)

The lack of talent development and the constant churning in big-city districts leads some to believe boards should look within for leadership. "The idea of turning to insiders is getting more currency around the country," says Michael Usdan, president of the Washington-based Institute for Educational Leadership.

"It's clear that the Messiah syndrome hasn't worked particularly well."

Baltimore's experience with school chiefs since 1960 supports Usdan. Excluding interim leaders, 10 superintendents - nine men and a woman - have served an average of 3.8 years, about a year less than the national average tenure of a superintendent.

But the three insiders, John L. Crew Sr., Alice G. Pinderhughes and Walter G. Amprey, also had the longest terms in office, serving six, seven and six years respectively. Though judging their performance is risky, it's hard to argue that the outsiders accomplished any more than the insiders.

Some who came with marvelous paper credentials - Richard C. Hunter from Chapel Hill, N.C., and Roland N. Patterson from Seattle - failed in Baltimore because they were ignorant of local politics.

In fact, no Baltimore school chief in the modern era can be said to have succeeded, though seven of them were chosen after extensive "national searches."

That's Usdan's point. Acknowledging that he doesn't know the Baltimore particulars, he says the top school job in cities has become so complex that "it almost requires an insider, someone who knows the system, someone who knows the politicians and where the bodies are buried."

Four of the six semifinalists recommended by the school board's search committee to replace Booker are in that category - Marylanders employed at North Avenue or with deep knowledge of it.

History teaches that city schools could do worse, especially if the folks doing the hiring think their deep problem will be solved by a savior from afar.

Sun staff writer Mike Bowler is author of "The Lessons of Change," a modern history of Baltimore schools.

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