New city schools leader promises a hands-on style

Classroom visits will be a staple in Russo routine

June 14, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Carmen V. Russo has this message for principals accustomed to rarely seeing their leader in schools: Expect to see me on your doorstep.

The newly appointed chief of Baltimore schools may tell you she is coming, but then again, she may just drop by. And after you've shown her what you are most proud of, she says, she will survey those places that tell the story of a school. She will talk to students, peek into the cafeteria and gym and watch what happens in classrooms.

"You can see immediately from the chalkboard and what is on the desk whether it is busywork or a strong academic program," Russo said yesterday.

The 64-year-old associate superintendent from Brow-ard County, Fla., was introduced as the new leader at a news conference and school board meeting yesterday afternoon. She officially begins work July 5.

Russo deftly declined to comment on how she will deal with some of the most critical issues facing the district in the next year - restoring financial credibility, closing some schools and continuing classroom reforms.

But she did say that her first weeks on the job will be spent listening to school board members, senior staff and community leaders. "We will talk about academic achievement and about how we can improve business practices," she said.

Russo will have to replace the school system's chief financial officer, who resigned 10 days ago after revelations that he oversaw the financing of an energy contract that was not bid or approved by the board.

While she searches for a chief financial officer, Russo said, she hopes to find an interim replacement who might be lent to the school system from a private business.

She said she is anxious to keep the current chief academic officer, Betty Morgan, who has been with the system for 18 months. Russo said she called Morgan immediately and got a commitment to stay. "Given her success, I was afraid someone might steal her away," Russo said.

Russo has been in Baltimore since Monday night, arriving just a few days after the school board chose her to replace the low-profile Robert Booker, who is leaving the job at the end of the month.

Russo was welcomed yesterday by the eight members of the school board and State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "There is a tremendous sense of confidence in your leadership, Ms. Russo," Grasmick said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley suggested in an interview yesterday that the school board, which has been known for being very involved in the daily running of the system, give more power to Russo. "Given the unanimity of the board, I hope they let her manage the school system and content themselves with monitoring the system and policy."

Russo - whose ease and polish in front of the public is in sharp contrast to Booker's more reserved manner - said she will be a hands-on leader in the academic arena and will try to include the public and parents in making decisions.

"I have a very inclusive style," she said. "I have a tendency to bring a lot of people to the table."

Russo was chosen, according to school board members, because she has a strong background in high school reform, technology and building relations with the community - all areas that city schools would like to improve.

She has spent the past six years as an associate superintendent in charge of strategic planning, technology and school improvement in Broward County, but 30 years of her career were spent in New York City schools. She said her experience as the chief executive officer of 200 New York high schools with 300,000 students - triple Baltimore's school population - gave her the best preparation for the job in Baltimore.

The job also prepared her for managing urban schools with a high percentage of poor and minority students. Baltimore's public schools are 70 percent African-American and have a high percentage of students who live in families poor enough to qualify for reduced-price or free lunches.

She drove around town the day before her first interview in Baltimore several weeks ago, she said." I felt I was home - in the Bronx. I feel very comfortable here."

Staff writer Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

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