Candidate's style is deft, decisive

Finalist for CEO of city schools is lifelong Baltimorean

May 24, 2000|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

On a table in the office of A. Skipp Sanders sits a hammer with its head swathed in red cloth.

What he calls his "velvet hammer" was a gift from a colleague who admired the deft but decisive way Sanders delivered a budget cut to a bloated corner of the bureaucracy shortly after he was named Maryland deputy school superintendent six years ago.

More than just a memento, it is a symbol of the management style of Sanders, one of four finalists for chief executive officer of the Baltimore school system, a style he describes as being "hard without being hard-assed."

"I may have to be candid with you, but I don't have to blast you away," says Sanders, 57, who is scheduled to appear at a public forum tonight at 6 p.m. at the Polytechnic Institute-Western High School complex, 1400 W. Cold Spring Lane.

"I will admit that I probably present a genteel kind of front," adds the soft-spoken 20-year administrator at the Maryland State Department of Education, who once was a candidate for the priesthood. "I think that's as it should be. I reject the notion that civility and decisiveness are opposites."

Those who have dealt with Sanders are quick to note decency among his attributes.

"He's a wonderful human being. I don't know anyone I respect more," says Karl Pence, outgoing president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, which represents unionized teachers everywhere in Maryland except Baltimore. "He's always been open and honest."

Helen Atkinson, a professional development specialist with the city schools, says the CEO candidate is the "consummate diplomat."

"He's been straight with me but not what I would call hard-nosed," says Atkinson, who had numerous contacts with Sanders when he was head of the state's teacher certification program and she was running a resident teachers program at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Sanders' boss, Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, credits him with developing high-quality alternative routes for teacher education and for advancing multicultural education.

Grasmick also praises Sanders' "incredible human relations skills."

"He gets along so well with people," she says. "But he is not inhibited in dealing with the situation if people are not performing. He is not reluctant at all to make judgments."

Grasmick says she is not endorsing any CEO candidate because she is scheduled to interview all four finalists and share her impressions with the city school board.

In pursuing the CEO post to replace the departing Robert Booker, Sanders seeks to head the system in which he received his education and spent eight years as a high school teacher.

Born and raised in West Baltimore, Askew (he's named after an uncle) Skipp Sanders was the eldest of three sons, whose father was a police officer and whose mother was a homemaker.

After graduating from City College, he entered St. Mary's Seminary & University to study for the priesthood, drawn by the "sense of order and authority" of the Roman Catholic Church.

In 1968, 8 1/2 years later and five months short of completing his work as a seminarian, Sanders dropped out, deciding he did not want to be a priest because of growing doubts about the church's position on birth control and abortion.

"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do," he said. "I've since come to think that whatever I do is a form of service and therefore ministry."

While waiting to hear about a job at the Social Security Administration, he began substitute teaching at Edmondson High School and found a new calling.

"I loved teaching," he says. "The students that interested me the most were the ones schools paid the least attention to."

He taught full time at Edmondson until 1971, when he left to attend graduate school in education at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1975, he returned to teach in the city school system, this time at Forest Park High School.

Sanders stayed at the Northwest Baltimore school until 1980, when he earned his doctorate in education and joined the Maryland State Department of Education.

Over the next two decades, he held various jobs at the department, leading to his appointment six years ago as one of two deputy superintendents. Among his duties as deputy superintendent for administration are preparation and oversight of the department's budget, which includes $170 million for headquarters administration and $3.3 billion in aid to the state's 24 jurisdictions.

He has a line to the classroom from his dining room table. Pam, his wife of 22 years, is a 31-year veteran of the city school system and a teacher at East Baltimore's Guilford Elementary School. They live in Randallstown and have two teen-age children.

Besides the Baltimore job, Sanders says, the only other top position he sought was that of Baltimore County schools chief in 1996, when he applied but quickly withdrew, deciding he had more to accomplish with the state.

"It wasn't worth hop-skipping around to get a title," he explains of his decision not to pursue other top school jobs.

Sanders says he sees the Baltimore job as a way to satisfy a "strong desire to improve schools in my home area" and also as a "challenge."

He says he has "nothing but respect and praise" for the work done by Booker, who is leaving when his two-year contract expires June 30.

The key for the school system now, Sanders says, is to build on the progress that has been made by making sure that school employees have the skills to put into effect the master plan for education reform adopted by the school board.

"I believe passionately that the reasons why children aren't achieving have very little to do with the children and a lot to do with how we organize services for the children," he says. "The absolute essential thing is effective teaching. Everything else exists to serve that.

"We keep looking for a magic bullet. I don't think there's a magic bullet. It's focus, focus, focus."

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