Issuing Russo's 6-month report card

City schools chief praised for financial, academic gains

January 29, 2001|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

During her first six months as head of the city school system, Carmen V. Russo's appointment book has read like a who's who in the world of Baltimore business, politics and nonprofit groups.

She has met with the top executives of IBM and Allfirst and Mercantile banks. The presidents of University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the Greater Baltimore Committee. The heads of the Annie E. Casey and Abell foundations and the Baltimore Urban League.

And, by her count, dozens more groups and individuals whom she hopes will provide support, financial and otherwise, to a school system in the midst of reform.

"A school system is only as good as the expectations -- the will -- of its community," says Russo. "This is such a big job, you can't do it by yourself. I think everybody has a part in it and they're all stakeholders, and that's what becomes so powerful in moving a school system forward."

Since taking over as the city schools' chief executive officer in July, Russo has been making contacts much more aggressively than her predecessor, trying to build critical support that could increase funding. She says she has a tighter grip on school finances, long a problem. And she plans to address reform at middle and high schools, where students badly need help catching up to their counterparts around the state.

Observers generally give Russo, 65, good marks for her no-nonsense approach and emphasis on reaching out.

"Carmen's a very good communicator," says John C. Erickson, head of the nonprofit Erickson Foundation. "She's ... talked with community business leaders all over, which is more than I'd ever seen anybody do. ... She knows the importance of having underlying support."

But, he added, "Talking is cheap. Turning that into a performance-based change is what is the hardest part."

Part of Russo's goal is to persuade key business and community leaders as well as politicians, locally and in Annapolis, to believe in the management of the city's public schools.

"I'd say she has created a strong sense of increasing confidence in the school system by her being out in such a public way willing to lead the charge for the system," says C. William Struever, school board vice chairman. "I think she will greatly help us in terms of bringing in additional resources to the system, both in terms of federal and state grants, but just as important, from businesses and foundations."

A composite superintendent

A former associate superintendent in Broward County, Fla., and chief executive of high schools in New York City, Russo views herself as a kind of composite superintendent: someone with a hand in both academic reform and financial management.

She has put in place a new finance team to sort through a $19.1 million deficit inherited from the previous administration. She also has taken steps to roll back spending to address a projected $16.8 million shortfall for the current year.

On the academic side, Russo inherited a 180-school system that has begun making solid gains, particularly at the elementary school level, on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills.

Accordingly, she has made reform at the city's middle and high schools a priority. She says she expects to present the school board with a plan for middle school reform by the end of March and high school reform by the fall.

"It's great to work with someone who understands school operations because it makes my job as an academician easier," says Betty Morgan, the school system's chief academic officer.

Russo also has become the public face of the city school system in a way that her predecessor, Robert Booker, never was.

"I would defy people to name another school superintendent in the state ... ," says Catherine Brennan, education director at Advocates for Children and Youth, a Baltimore nonprofit organization. "People know who she is, and that's good. She has to be the No. 1 salesman for the system."

Russo claims not to see herself as a "political animal," calling her ease in the political arena "just a skill." But those who have seen her in action say she clearly understands the payoff.

"I think Carmen understands strategy, and I'm not sure we've had anyone who understands strategic thinking in a while," says school board member Sam Stringfield.

She had a lesson in local politics early in her tenure.

In July, Russo was ready to sever a multimillion-dollar computer contract under scrutiny by internal and outside auditors because its price tag had nearly tripled.

She backed down after state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the influential chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, intervened, saying that the minority-owned company, Information Control Systems, was doing an "outstanding job."

Rawlings says Russo's appointment of a new technology officer to restructure the technology department -- which he says has been a "failing office for more than a decade" -- is critical.

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