Russo's accomplishments viewed alongside problems

Budget deficits, missteps beginning to overshadow impressive school reforms

March 19, 2003|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

As Carmen V. Russo's tenure as chief executive of the city school system comes to an end, her accomplishments are fast becoming the subject of intense analysis.

"You can't really say if her job is finished or not because she's leaving in the middle of her contract," said Lorretta Johnson, head of the Baltimore Teachers Union's paraprofessional chapter. "Who is going to follow through with her initiatives?"

Since arriving in Baltimore in July 2000, Russo has made major strides toward her goal of restructuring high schools and attracting the private investment needed to pay for the reforms. But as she prepares to leave June 30 - three years into a four-year contract - she also finds her legacy tarnished by budget deficits, financial missteps and her administration's response to lead in school water.

Regardless, supporters and detractors alike give her high marks for infusing a moribund school system with an enthusiasm for reform.

"I really admired her energy," said Russo's first chief academic officer, Betty Morgan, who left in 2001 to become superintendent of the Washington County school system. "Her approach to things was always with a sense of urgency."

Urgency is what the school system required when Russo came to Baltimore. At the time, the school district was embroiled in controversy. The chief financial officer and business officer had resigned after a flap regarding no-bid contracts worth millions of dollars.

Russo led the school system out of the red and ended her first year with a $4.9 million budget surplus - an auspicious start laced with fiscal irony, considering that her final year would be dogged by a multimillion-dollar deficit.

At the start of her second year, Russo launched an aggressive agenda to restructure high schools, hoping to build on the reforms that were helping to improve test scores at elementary schools.

In October 2001, Russo unveiled a five-year, $55 million plan to create small learning communities. It was the most radical overhaul of city high schools in 30 years. She also went on to create a district of her own, identifying 10 schools she would take under her wing and improve within 3 1/2 years. During her tenure, four new high schools have been launched: The Digital Harbor High School and the National Academy Foundation School at Port Discovery are open, and New Era Academy and the Baltimore Freedom Academy will begin classes in the fall.

Russo also successfully split Northern High into three separate schools, reducing class size.

"I think she really brought Baltimore's attention to the high schools," said Bonnie Copeland, president of the Fund for Educational Excellence. "She tackled very difficult issues."

Copeland also offered high praise for Russo's ability to secure a $20 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and nine local charitable organizations.

But Russo's tenure was also marred by rising tensions between the school board and teachers, and her administration. Her replacement for Morgan, Cassandra W. Jones, upset principals and teachers who viewed the new second-in-command as committed but dictatorial. Then last year, Russo surprised school board members when it became widely known that she was a finalist for a job in Florida.

At the same time the school system's finances were unraveling.

"The school district did not pay enough attention to the budget," said Michele Noel, a former school board member. "The ball was dropped."

The school system carried over a $12 million budget deficit two years ago that was added to a $9 million deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2002. This year, the system has been on track to run a $31 million projected deficit, which would deepen the financial hole. If the trend were to continue, the school system could accumulate a $52 million deficit.

Russo also caught flak for paying her driver $101,000 in salary and overtime last year. Her administration's slow response to the lead in school water garnered citywide condemnation.

"High school reforms will be her legacy even if they're not completed or that far down the road," said Carl Stokes, a former school board member and chairman of the Maryland Education Coalition. "But the issue of finances may outweigh her high school reforms."

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