Russo arrives to plenty of `dissing'

June 15, 2000|By Michael Olesker

CARMEN RUSSO, meet Domonic Rollins.

Russo is the newly appointed chief of Baltimore's public schools. Rollins is a newly appointed 11th-grader at Polytechnic Institute.

Russo must deal with troubled kids, underpaid teachers, overpaid bureaucrats, out-of-date textbooks, underwhelming supplies of computers and, never to be minimized, all manner of financial problems.

Rollins must deal with being 16 years old. Being such an age, he is expected to articulate in the familiar manner of all adolescents, summed up in the classic phrase: "So I'm, like, you know?"

Instead, Rollins is a student government officer at Poly and a student representative on the board of school commissioners.

And, despite being 16, he says things such as this: "It's ironic that students and teachers must hound the school board for added funding at a time when the board is suing the state on funding. When I attended the last board meeting, one of the school commissioners was a tad upset that the board didn't respond in writing. He said, `In the words of the street, we feel dissed.' Well, how does he think students and parents feel? You can't say what he's saying when you've been dissing other people for so long."

So there.

What Carmen Russo will no doubt discover is the great amount of political in-fighting involved in running Baltimore schools. This will not surprise her, of course. Before Baltimore, she was associate superintendent of schools in Broward County, Fla. Before that, she was chief executive officer of 200 New York high schools with 300,000 students. This is three times as many as in Baltimore.

But she arrives here in the midst of all manner of "dissing." Some city high schools (such as Poly) think other city high schools (such as City College) get too much money. Some city high schools (such as City College) believe their recent blue-ribbon award as one of the top schools in the United States justifies the extra money and should serve as a lesson to educators and politicians everywhere: Money helps. Spread it around. And some city school officials believe the governor of Maryland, Parris Glendening, should be the first person to understand this message. He is famous for talking about the glories of education. He has said he wants to be known as the education governor. Some think he should be known as the double-talking governor, particularly when it comes to school funding. This is why city school officials filed an 80-page petition in Baltimore Circuit Court this week to claim $49 million they believe the governor promised them and seems to have forgotten.

This brings us back to those such as Domonic Rollins. In April, Rollins and two Poly schoolmates, Kimberly Harrison and Dennis Robinson, spoke to school officials on a subject dear to their hearts: money. In conversation the other day, Rollins elaborated on his remarks. They dealt, specifically, with Poly's getting about $3,500 per student - while archrival City gets about $5,000 per student.

"Our school produces the finest students in the city," Rollins said, "with less money. There's no justification for that. I have to take classes with 40 students. I have to take labs where there isn't enough equipment. City has extra money. We don't have that luxury. Every other school has the same complaint."

Rollins called here at the prompting of Bobby Marinelli, a science teacher at Poly who also called to voice his displeasure over money going to City and a recent column in this space lauding City for its blue ribbon award.

"What I'm saying," said Marinelli, "is that all city schools should be on the same page. Give everybody the same money. Why are City's kids worth so much more than my kids? What do I say to my kids? Tell them they're unlucky enough to have picked a high school that the city doesn't want to celebrate? We out-perform everybody. Maybe our success is our biggest obstacle."

Carmen Russo will discover there is a history here. The new school leader will learn that City and Poly have been great rivals for many years and that each school has a history of excellence - in the classroom, on the ball field and elsewhere. She will also find that, six years ago, City was given extra money, and that the extra funding has continued. It was an experiment. Could money buy excellence? This year, City became only the second Baltimore school ever awarded the national blue ribbon of excellence. The other was the School for the Arts, which was also given extra money. Is there a connection? Of course. And that's the point that should not be overlooked. At Poly, Domonic Rollins and Bobby Marinelli are exactly right when they say their school should be getting the same kind of money as City College. But the idea isn't to tear down one school - particularly one that's making the experiment work - it's to raise the spending at other schools.

This gets us back to our education governor, who talks one way and then forgets when it is convenient. Surely he understands that the three-decade slide of Baltimore schools is tied considerably to the spending disparity with other state schools.

Thus, when Carmen Russo discovers the joys of meeting dedicated souls such as Domonic Rollins and Bobby Marinelli, she will also discover what it is like to meet Parris Glendening, and walk away feeling dissed.

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