Russo gets nod to run city schools

Fla. associate had reform experience in New York City

`Extremely tough decision'

Some disappointed an administrator from Md. not hired

June 10, 2000|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's search for a new education chief ended yesterday with the selection of Carmen Varela-Russo, an energetic reformer who has won praise for turning around troubled high schools and has more than three decades of experience in large urban school districts.

Russo, 64, an associate superintendent in Florida, impressed the city school board as the right administrator to guide the revitalization of Baltimore's public schools.

"I am very excited," she said yesterday in a telephone interview. "My focus will be on improving academic achievement. One of my priorities is to make Baltimore City a model urban school district."

Her appointment comes at a critical juncture in an ambitious $254 million school reform effort begun by the city and state three years ago.

The city's elementary schools appear poised for a rebound, after scoring remarkable gains on standardized reading and math tests this spring. But many of the higher grades still rank near the bottom in Maryland, and significant numbers of students don't finish high school.

School board members said Russo's record of improving New York City's high schools won her the job over Bonnie S. Copeland, the Baltimore director of a nonprofit educational group. The board reached a unanimous decision after private discussions that lasted late into Thursday night.

"It was an extremely tough decision," said board member Michele B. Noel, who chaired the search committee. In the end, she said, the board chose Russo because of "her demonstrated experience in school reform in New York."

Board member Patricia L. Morris agreed: "We're going to be paying a lot of attention to high schools. She has the experience and expertise we need."

The board's choice came down to Russo and Copeland after a three-month search marked by the loss of one finalist last month and the sudden withdrawal Thursday afternoon by A. Skipp Sanders, second-in-command at the Maryland Department of Education.

Copeland called Russo yesterday to wish her well. While disappointed, Copeland said, she would continue her work in city schools through the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence. "My goal has always been to improve student achievement and that's not going to stop."

Key aspects of Russo's contract, including its length and her salary and benefits, are still being worked out. However, Noel made clear that the board wants "a long-term commitment," after having two men in the job in three years.

Russo, who plans to spend several days in Baltimore next week, is scheduled to replace Robert Booker at the helm of the 103,000-student district beginning July 5. Booker announced six months ago that he would step down at the end of this month. He had a two-year contract and was paid $185,000 a year.

In selecting Russo, Baltimore ignored a recent trend among large districts of choosing nontraditional leaders. Last month, New York City chose a corporate lawyer and this week Los Angeles hired a former Colorado governor.

Russo will be the second woman in city history to run its schools. The other was the late Alice G. Pinderhughes, for whom the central school administration building is now named.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, Maryland school superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and other officials greeted Russo's selection with enthusiasm.

"I was very much impressed with Carmen Russo's track record," said O'Malley, who had made his feelings known before the school board acted. "I have no doubt that the people of Baltimore are going to rally around her," he added. "She's very, very impressive. She's a change agent."

State Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who helped create the city-state partnership to restructure Baltimore's schools, was equally pleased. She, too, had met the three finalists and had told the school board that she liked Russo.

"What I was looking for was an experience level in public schools," Hoffman said. "I think Dr. Russo had that over the other candidates."

The Parent and Community Advisory Committee, an influential group that monitors progress in the city schools, had also backed Russo. Bernadette Forman, president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, said yesterday she talked to a parents and community leaders who were "very excited."

Some civic and political leaders, however, were surprised by the school board's swift announcement and concerned that an administrator from outside Maryland is being hired once again. Several were dismayed by Sanders' withdrawal, while others supported Copeland, both of whom knew city schools well.

"I am not the happiest person in the world," said Councilman Melvin L. Stukes, who chairs the council's education committee. He had hoped Sanders would be selected, after initially supporting Betty Morgan, the city schools' chief academic officer, who bowed out before the board announced its finalists.

"We don't have the benefit of knowing much about [Russo], of knowing whether she works well with a diverse group," he added.

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