Schools' CEO search narrowed

4 candidates remain for top city post, including 2 from Md.

`A very hard choice'

Finalists come from administrative, teaching backgrounds

May 09, 2000|By Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich | Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

After two years of a deliberative financial officer running the city schools, the Baltimore school board has narrowed its choice of a successor to four finalists who know the inside of a classroom.

The leading candidates to become the city's next education chief are two longtime Maryland educational leaders and two top school administrators from out of state, the board announced yesterday.

"I think it's going to be a very hard choice," said Sam Stringfield, a board member and educational researcher at the Johns Hopkins University. "It's a very strong pool of candidates."

The candidates are Bonnie S. Copeland, the Baltimore director of a nonprofit educational group; A. Skipp Sanders, second in command of the Maryland Department of Education; Carmen Varela-Russo, an associate superintendent of a large Florida school district; and Richard A. DiPatri, superintendent of the Jersey City, N.J., public schools.

The finalists are competing to replace Robert Booker, the low-profile chief executive officer who is leaving when his two-year contract is up June 30.

Booker was hired not long after a significant restructuring of the superintendent's job, which carries a $185,000 annual salary and responsibility for 103,000 schoolchildren.

Even the job title was changed, to chief executive officer, under a city-state partnership that has emphasized the need to run the school district more like a business. The schools chief no longer reports directly to City Hall, but to an independent school board that is jointly appointed by the mayor and governor.

Booker, an accountant who has never been a teacher, has been credited with bringing a steadying hand to a school system that had endured much turmoil. But some school officials and civic leaders became impatient that during his tenure, an ambitious, multimillion-dollar reform effort had not translated into more tangible classroom results.

"Having a CEO with experience in curriculum can only help. Dr. Booker didn't have that at all. It may be that the school board has recognized they need a balance in that regard," said Cathy Brennan, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth. She said she believed all four finalists were "good candidates."

The school board has scheduled four "Meet the Finalist" nights to give the public an opportunity to see and ask questions of each candidate. The meetings will be held at 6 p.m. May 23, May 26, June 1 and June 6, at an auditorium shared by Polytechnic Institute and Western High School on Falls Road and Cold Spring Lane.

Both out-of-state finalists have experience in urban school districts that face problems similar to Baltimore's.

DiPatri has been the superintendent of Jersey City public schools for the past three years.

In 1989, the state seized control of the 32,000-student system, which was beset by corruption and low student achievement. "The district is making significant progress," DiPatri said. The state is about to return the system to local control.

DiPatri, 53, has been a teacher, principal and deputy state superintendent in New Jersey. He also worked for a nonprofit educational consulting group for three years.

"I am looking for a position where I can work for a school district for six to eight years," he said, adding that he would like to bring some of the same reforms to Baltimore that were initiated in Jersey City, including all-day programs for 3- and 4-year-olds and after-school programs.

Varela-Russo, 63, said she would draw on her decade of experiences in New York City public schools as well as her school management experience in Broward County, Fla. She rose from high school principal in the South Bronx in the 1980s to running all of New York's high schools by the early 1990s. She is now responsible for education technology, strategic planning and school improvement planning in the Broward County public school system. "I'm thrilled," she said about making the list of finalists. "My whole career has been in urban education. I know it may sound Pollyanna-ish, but I really believe the future of our economy will be determined in our urban centers."

One of the biggest attractions of Baltimore, she said, is that school reform is well under way. She said she has read the master plan, a detailed blueprint for the five-year, city-state efforts to revitalize schools that had been in decline for more than two decades.

Sanders and Copeland both said their experiences as teachers have shaped their desire to be schools superintendent.

A 57-year-old City College graduate, Sanders taught in two Baltimore high schools, Forest Park and Edmondson High School, for eight years. It was his experience teaching low-achieving students that forever changed him, he said. "I learned about the contradictions of children who are bright and not achieving. I see that as a metaphor for the school system," he said.

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