City schools chief Russo a finalist for job in Florida

Selection for state post to be made next week

board members surprised

September 21, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo was named yesterday one of two finalists for a newly created chancellor's post in Florida, news that shocked several city school board members who had not been told she was a candidate.

Russo, who has nearly two years left on her four-year contract, said she was approached by a search firm about a month- and-a-half ago about the job overseeing kindergarten through 12th-grade public education in Florida - which she referred to as an "extraordinary opportunity."

"I was called and I was asked to apply, and you know I get calls from different places," said Russo, a former associate superintendent in Broward County, Fla., who has also served as head of high schools in New York City. "I have never been interested in the superintendency of another public school system. I have my commitment to Baltimore. But this is really a very exciting opportunity. It is a bigger position than I currently hold. And I just felt that it was an opportunity that I would certainly like to explore."

Russo, 66, will travel to Orlando on Tuesday to be interviewed by a six-member candidate review team, which will recommend one of the two finalists to state Education Secretary Jim Horne. Horne will present the recommendation in turn to the state board for final approval Wednesday.

Asked whether she would accept the job if it is offered to her, Russo said only: "I really don't want to get into that right now. I don't think it's appropriate. I appreciate the interview and I feel honored."

Russo has generally been given high marks for helping the city school system - which, in partnership with the state, is in the midst of a major reform - regain both academic and managerial credibility. An early departure could short-circuit the district's ambitious plans to improve its middle and high schools, a much-needed effort that has only just begun.

The other finalist for the Florida post is Clifford B. Janey, a former chief academic officer for Boston public schools who served most recently as superintendent in Rochester, N.Y.

Baltimore school board members expressed surprise about Russo's candidacy for the Florida job, with one saying he was counting on her to finish out her contract and another saying it would be "very catastrophic" if she left. When board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch learned about the development for the first time yesterday, her initial reaction was denial.

"I'm not even thinking about it. There are some things I just block out of my mind, and that's one of them," she said. "It would be a great loss for us because we have the momentum now that would lead us to achieve the goals that we have set for the system. To have a shift or a change at the top now would certainly stall the activities that we've planned."

Board member J. Tyson Tildon didn't know that Russo was in the running until contacted by a Sun reporter yesterday. Though he was shocked by that news, he said he was not surprised that she is being pursued by other jurisdictions.

"Because of the success of Baltimore, anybody that heads this system would definitely be in consideration for other opportunities," he said. "And we should have, as a board, been thinking about that."

"We've got a lot of work to do," Tildon said. "It would be very catastrophic if she left, because then you have to go back through the process of finding someone."

Russo's name was floated several months ago for the job of chancellor of New York City's public schools. She said yesterday that she did interview for that post, but no others.

Russo was hired in 2000 in large part for her expertise in reforming high schools. On her watch, the system has launched a comprehensive effort to improve the city's woefully inadequate neighborhood high schools - an effort that is expected to take three to five years. This year, the school system is also facing one of its toughest tests to date: helping the 20,000 children who failed to meet tough new passing standards get the assistance they need to catch up.

Board Vice Chairman C. William Struever stressed the importance of stability at the top of the school system. He said he had a brief phone conversation with Russo yesterday during which she gave him a "heads-up" that she had been named a finalist. He said the board would likely discuss the issue with her this morning at a previously scheduled retreat.

"Carmen's doing a terrific job and the board is counting on her finishing the term of her contract," Struever said. "We're making great progress, and we're showing some real results. And stability and continuity is important - and leadership - and that's why we did a four-year contract. We like that stability."

"The great majority of the board clearly hopes that Carmen remains in Baltimore," said board member Sam Stringfield. "At the same time, I wish her the very best, wherever her opportunties and interests take her."

Baltimore has had three chief executives in five years.

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