School CEO race narrows to two

Sanders withdraws as candidate for city's educational post

June 09, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's search for a new schools chief abruptly shrank to a two-woman contest yesterday when the third finalist withdrew from consideration even as the school board was weighing its choices.

A. Skipp Sanders, second-in-command of the state Department of Education, had impressed several school board members and Mayor Martin O'Malley with his determination to prove that underachieving city schools could perform as well as other Maryland schools.

Sanders surprised everyone early yesterday afternoon by announcing that he was bowing out for personal reasons. He declined to elaborate, saying only that it was "the hardest decision I had to make since changing my whole career course" when he decided not to become a priest in 1968.

His decision narrows the choice of the city's third schools chief in as many years to Bonnie S. Copeland, the Baltimore director of a nonprofit educational group, and Carmen Varela-Russo, an associate superintendent of a large Florida school system.

Both are well-regarded and each has strong support on the school board. Some city school observers say Copeland has an advantage because she was a board member in 1997-1998.

The eight-person board met privately last night and had been expected to discuss a successor to Robert Booker. The city schools' low-profile chief executive officer will leave when his contract expires at the end of the month. Board members said they had just heard of Sanders' withdrawal and doubted whether they would quickly reach a consensus. Besides Sanders, a New Jersey superintendent withdrew last month and took another job.

In choosing between Copeland and Varela-Russo, the board has to determine who is better suited to lead a multimillion-dollar reform effort that has produced remarkable gains in the elementary schools but has yet to translate into corresponding results in the higher grades.

Baltimore's next education chief will have to build on the progress made by elementary school children, who showed significant improvement on standardized tests this spring, while devoting more attention and resources to high schools with high dropout rates.

Equally important will be establishing better internal controls to prevent the no-bid contracting that was revealed last week and led to the resignation of the school system's chief financial officer and a one-month suspension of its business officer. The superintendent's job in the 103,000-student system, which pays $185,000 annually, was restructured under the city-state reform initiative begun three years ago. Even the job title was changed - to chief executive officer - to emphasize the need to run the schools more like a business.

Booker, a career financial officer from Los Angeles, has been credited with bringing a steadying hand to a school system that had endured much turmoil. But some school officials and civic leaders grew impatient with the pace of classroom reforms, and his two-year tenure is ending with questions about financial oversight. The school board decided to look for a successor who knows the inside of a both a classroom and a boardroom.

Copeland, Varela-Russo and Sanders met with parents, community leaders and school officials at forums held in city schools during the past few weeks. They also were interviewed twice by the school board and a search committee that included local business officials, a minister, and a union representative.

Sun staff writer Rafael Alvarez contributed to this article.

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