City schools need management first

New chief: Valera-Russo will need help to gain control of financial, management problems.

June 13, 2000

AT FIRST GLANCE, it looks like an odd fit.

The Baltimore City schools, which remain a cesspool of financial and business mismanagement, turn to a life-long educator to fill the chief executive role. If Carmen Valera-Russo is going to be successful here, she'll need a lot of help -- and a lot of luck. There's no doubt about Ms. Valera-Russo's education dossier. She worked wonders in New York's high schools (another area of weakness in Baltimore schools) andin Broward County, Fla., where Ms. Valera-Russo is an associate superintendent.

She should have no problem building on the success that seems to be sprouting in the city's elementary schools. And she should give direction to a high-school reform effort that until now has been disappointing.

But the biggest problems right now have to do with money and management. A scandal reported in The Sun this month revealed a shocking lack of control over the awarding of contracts and possible conflicts of interest among high-ranking officials.

The system needs better financial controls -- ironically, one of the things outgoing CEO Robert Booker was hired to institute -- and it needs a strong leader who makes it clear to the bureaucracy how and why business decisions get made. (Paring down that bureaucracy also is imperative for the new chief.) Ms. Valera-Russo, who doesn't have a background in that kind of management, will have to act quickly to compensate.

She must immediately begin looking for a top-notch chief financial officer. And it might be wise for the school board to consider hiring a chief operating officer -- an idea that was floated when Dr. Booker was hired two years ago. His extensive business management background persuaded board members that it wasn't needed; the recent contract shenanigans proved that was wrong.

There is no doubt Ms. Valera-Russo can be successful. She has a strong reputation for building the kinds of coalitions that yield results.

But if it's not addressed -- and if the board doesn't demand it is addressed as soon as she starts -- her lack of background in financial management could make her administration a disaster. No one can afford to let that happen.

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