City schools search to be national in scope

But Maryland educators likely to be considered as CEO candidates

March 20, 2003|By Liz Bowie and Tanika White | Liz Bowie and Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore school board soon will launch a national search for a new schools' chief, but Maryland educators, who are familiar with the operations and politics of the city system, are likely to get hard looks.

School board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said the board plans to have a permanent replacement for school Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo when she steps down June 30.

"We have to involve ourselves in a very aggressive search. We don't want to miss a day, no we will not miss a day [without] ... leadership," Welch said. "On July 1, we want someone on the fourth floor [in the CEO's office] .... who will provide leadership."

Russo announced Tuesday that she intends to leave at the end of the third year of a four-year contract to take a job with a nonprofit foundation. She declined to identify the group.

The board apparently will conduct the search itself as it did three years ago, rather than hire an outside recruiting firm.

Local educators the board might consider, observers of the school system said, would include Bonnie Copeland, a former city school board member and executive director of a nonprofit group that has been intimately involved in reform of schools in the city; A. Skipp Sanders, an assistant state secretary of education; and Charlene Cooper Boston, a former city administrator who recently left to become superintendent of Wicomico County schools.

Copeland and Sanders were finalists for the job in 2000 when Russo was hired. Sanders pulled out of the running before the board made a decision.

Copeland, who works for the Fund for Educational Excellence, has broad experience in Maryland education at the state and local level. She also has forged friendships with school board members.

"I will forever be concerned about what happens in the Baltimore City schools, but I do think the fund has been allowed to be a real partner in the reform," Copeland said, adding that she loves her job and didn't believe anyone could offer her a better position. Three years ago, Copeland said, the board decided she was better in her current job. "I think they were right last time," she said.

Copeland has been influential as a liaison between the school system and nonprofit foundations that are committing $20 million to reform the neighborhood high schools, said Jane Sundius, program officer for education and youth development at the Open Society Institute, one of the nonprofit groups. "She is very effective where she is," she said. Nevertheless, Sundius added, "I would be surprised if they didn't consider her."

Sanders did not return phone calls and Boston could not be reached for comment.

Michelle Noel, a former board member who headed the last search that yielded Russo, said she believes that despite the short time frame, the board could come up with a new CEO over the next several months.

"It is a challenge, but it is not impossible, I think," Noel said.

Whoever is chosen next to head the school system is likely to receive more than the $192,000 in salary and $20,000 bonus Russo earned last year.

"We're going to be competing against high salaries in Montgomery, Anne Arundel and anticipated high salaries in Prince George's" counties, said Welch.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings has urged the board to offer at least $250,000 for the next school chief executive. "We need to ... increase the salary to increase the quality," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Asked where the money would come from, Rawlings said, "We're increasing state funds to public education in Baltimore City substantially. Nothing is more important than having a high-quality leader to transform the system."

The job the next CEO faces might be more difficult than it was several years ago. Not only are there serious financial issues -- the district had been running a projected $31 million deficit -- the new leader will have to mend fences with the principals, some of whom feel angry and alienated by the policies of the past two years.

The new CEO will be charged with continuing a complex process of high school reform while maintaining the momentum begun on the elementary level.

Education advocates say the new schools' leader also needs to have a different approach than that of Russo, who called herself a "change agent," meaning she set school reform in motion and believed it should have enough momentum to continue after her departure.

"You just can't set a process in motion and leave," said Kalman R. Hettleman, a former board member. "Ninety percent of the battle is not writing plans, but implementation and seeing things through. [Russo] had the talent to do that job, but she never set out to do it. I think she misconceived the nature of what was needed."

Christopher N. Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said board members should be looking for three key qualities in the next CEO: fiscal responsibility; dedication to incorporating parental and community involvement; and an ability to find and recruit good principals.

Sun staff writer David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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