School board ponders losing Russo to Fla.

System CEO a finalist for state-level position

To interview Tuesday

Panel considers action should leader depart

September 22, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

An anxious Baltimore school board pondered behind closed doors yesterday the prospect of losing Carmen V. Russo to a new chancellor's post in Florida, but emerged with more questions than answers about how to handle the chief executive officer's possible departure midway through her contract.

Board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said board members began to discuss plans for replacing Russo should she be offered - and accept - a job overseeing kindergarten through 12th-grade public education in Florida.

"We need to begin to think about the `what-ifs,'" said Welch. "Top of the list now is: What if Carmen's leaving? What do we do? It becomes a mandate now for us to look at how we would steady this ship without the captain."

On Friday, Russo, 66, was named one of two finalists for the newly created chancellorship and will interview for the job Tuesday - the second time in several months she will have interviewed for a job elsewhere.

Russo, a former associate superintendent in Broward County, Fla., whose boyfriend and family live in that state, declined yesterday to comment on her candidacy, calling it a "sensitive" issue that she wished to discuss privately with the board. She would not say whether she would entertain a counter-offer from Baltimore, and board members were unsure of whether they would make one.

"From my point of view, I don't think that's productive," said board member J. Tyson Tildon.

If Russo leaves, Welch said, the board would likely consider hiring an interim schools chief. But members would have to decide whether the temporary head should come from inside or outside the system, and whether that person would be eligible to apply for the permanent job.

"Those are things that are of immediate concern to the board," she said.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in a phone interview that he wants Russo to stay but would understand if she were to leave for the Florida post, which is equivalent to that held by Maryland Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"I was concerned because I think she was moving the school system in the right direction, but you cannot begrudge a person who is given this extraordinary opportunity," he said. "Most of the reform is being driven by the board, and I think the board will step in and find a suitable replacement to continue the progress in the city."

Officials could have done more, Rawlings said, to find a job for Russo's boyfriend - a common practice when top executives are hired.

"I think it's a sad commentary on the sophistication of Baltimore City that we were not able to bring her significant other to the city in a position of employment that would have kept him here and her happy," he said.

The other finalist for the chancellor's job is Clifford B. Janey, who served most recently as superintendent in Rochester, N.Y.

Russo said that her contract includes an "out clause," though she declined to discuss the details of it. It was unclear yesterday how much notice she would be required to give.

"So far, we've asked the hypothetical question of Carmen, and she hasn't been able to say what the time period will be," said Board Vice Chairman C. William Struever. "Certainly, it is our hope that Carmen will honor her four-year contract and complete the job that she's begun so well."

Russo's candidacy for the Florida post did not come up during the public portion of yesterday's previously scheduled board retreat.

Russo has generally been praised for her leadership during the past two years, though the 93,000-student district had already begun to make significant progress in raising test scores at the elementary level by the time she arrived. She was hired, in large part, to guide reforms of the system's troubled secondary schools - an effort that has only just begun.

Russo will be interviewed Tuesday by a six-member candidate review team, which is expected to make a recommendation to Florida Education Secretary Jim Horne that day. Horne will present that recommendation to the state board of education Wednesday.

Welch compared a departure by Russo to a body trying to function without a head.

"It's very troubling because you know, without a head, the body doesn't know where it's going," said Welch.

"Just when we thought we had the right team in place," she said. "The mere thought that we would be losing that is, of course, very unsettling to the board, and it makes us kind of anxious."

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