Baltimore City schools chief Carmen V. Russo withdrew her name from the short list of finalists for a top schools job in Florida yesterday, leaving local school board members relieved that the system's promising reform effort would not be interrupted by her departure.
Russo said she reconsidered her candidacy because she wanted to concentrate on the local initiatives that have been under way since she took Baltimore's top school post more than two years ago. Several delays in the interviewing process in Florida, she said, threatened to hinder those projects.
"We are at a pivotal point, and I do not wish to have the unforeseen delays in Florida impact our school system's reform efforts," Russo said in a news release. "We have seen major gains on a variety of fronts."
School board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said yesterday that the board was pleased with Russo's decision. Other members said they were relieved.
In an interview yesterday, Russo said leaders in Florida missed her deadline.
"I just had a timeline in my head," she said. "With politics and elections, there are ... delays, and I just didn't want to lose our focus."
Russo was one of two finalists for the newly created position of chancellor of kindergarten through 12th-grade public education in Florida. Her candidacy was announced Sept. 20.
"I think she did the right thing," said board member Sam Stringfield. "I don't think you can leave another school system in a lurch forever."
Board Vice Chairman C. William Struever said he was "delighted" that Russo planned to honor her contract, especially as Baltimore has begun making a name for itself as one of the "fastest improving big city school systems in the country."
Since Russo's arrival, the system has expanded the number of prekindergarten-through-eighth-grade schools, and strengthened the middle school program. Several large, unruly high schools have been broken into smaller, more manageable ones.
"We are entering into the next phase of our reform effort," Struever said. "Clearly now is the time when we all need to roll up our sleeves and focus. And we need the full attention of the boss."
Since Russo was announced as a finalist in Florida, board and community members had been concerned about stability in the district.
Russo is in the third year of a four-year contract as chief executive officer, and city school board members worried that her departure would disrupt the process of reforming the middle and high schools.
The Florida Board of Education was expected to hold interviews and make a decision within a week of the initial announcement, but officials there canceled the interviews the day before Russo was to leave for Florida, saying they needed a third candidate.
A month later, the process was again delayed when Florida officials said the search process had taken longer than anticipated and that they were looking only for high-quality candidates.
As the weeks dragged on, speculation about whether Russo would stay intensified here.
By choosing to withdraw her name from consideration, Russo is giving up the possibility of a move back to her home state where her family lives. A former associate superintendent in Broward Co., Russo owns a home in Boca Raton and is registered to vote there.
Despite the many delays, Florida's Secretary of Education Jim Horne said Russo remained a "strong candidate" for the position.
"Carmen Russo is a well-respected educator with an impressive record, and she was a strong candidate to become Florida's first chancellor of K-12 public education," Horne said in a statement issued by his office last night. "We understand her decision to remain in Baltimore, where her talents and leadership are needed."
Florida officials said they didn't expect Russo's withdrawal to impede their search.