Copeland hired as interim CEO of city schools

Head of education fund chosen to replace Russo

Local experience noted

Board to continue hunt for full-time executive

April 11, 2003|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Bonnie S. Copeland, head of an educational foundation and an experienced Maryland educator, has been named interim chief executive officer of Baltimore's public school system.

Although the nine-member Board of School Commissioners plans to conduct a search for a permanent schools chief, the board began considering Copeland "immediately" after CEO Carmen V. Russo announced last month her intention to leave, Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said yesterday.

Copeland has long been considered a contender for the school system's top job. In 2000, she was passed over for Russo, who had been a top administrator in New York City.

"We believe that Bonnie has the skills set to do what it is we need to do," Welch said.

"We have some really, really critical issues and we can't wait six months or nine months. We have to give those issues full attention right now," she said.

School officials plan to announce Copeland's appointment at a news conference today.

She will start working July 1, Welch said, one day after Russo leaves. Welch said the board and Copeland had not discussed salary.

Reached by phone yesterday, Copeland called her new duties "an awesome task."

In particular, the system has been dealing with a budget deficit that at times has been projected to reach upward of $30 million.

Some temporary workers have been laid off, and board members have threatened to furlough workers and limit teacher raises.

School officials also have been frustrated by the details of a 19-year-old special education lawsuit that has cost millions of dollars.

The system is in the middle of a crucial high school reform program, and is trying to continue a trend of increased test scores and higher graduation rates.

Also, the system has been struggling with bad public relations stemming from the failure to address lead-contaminated drinking water in some schools.

"There has to be a focus on all those things," Welch said. "Bonnie has been working within the system. She's no stranger to Baltimore.

"The other thing is that she has worked interactively with Carmen over the last three years. We don't have to convince her of the importance of what has to happen, because she's been with us all along."

Neither school officials nor Copeland would say whether she was a contender for the permanent position, or how long she would be filling in.

"Right now we're just concentrating on making the transition a smooth one," Copeland said. "Just focusing on what needs to be done instead of how long."

Copeland, 53, was an associate superintendent of instruction in Baltimore County from 1989 to 1990, deputy state superintendent of schools from 1990 to 1994 and executive vice president of the Greater Baltimore Committee from 1994 to 1999.

In 1991, she served as acting state superintendent of schools.

In 1997, she was named to the new Baltimore school board, which was charged with reforming schools in a partnership with the state.

Copeland left the board, which has a city residency requirement, after moving to Howard County in 1998. She now lives in Federal Hill.

Working with Russo

Since 2000, as executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence - a 16-year-old organization that includes in its programs Achievement First, a reform-based program in more than 20 city schools - Copeland has worked alongside Russo in several arenas, particularly high school reform.

The fund controls about $20 million in high school reform money given by local and national foundations.

In addition, the fund has participated in choosing two nonprofits to set up small, new high schools in the city next fall.

Copeland said board members and other respected colleagues persuaded her to take the interim job.

"A lot of people have talked to me and have encouraged me to put my money where my mouth is and have reminded me that I have always had this absolute love affair with the school system," Copeland said yesterday. "And that the time has come."

Sally Michel, a former member of the fund's board, said Copeland has the energy, talent and experience to continue where Russo is leaving off.

"She's really been aware of the school system from many different angles," Michel said.

Some local advocates said that the fact Copeland has roots in Baltimore is encouraging.

"I think her involvement in the [fund] is a step in the right direction because she apparently believes in excellence in education for the children of Baltimore," said Tyrone Powers, an outspoken critic of the school system leadership.

"If her involvement in the organization is consistent with her commitment, then we might be on the right track," Powers said.

`Very thoughtful'

But some wondered if Copeland - known for her congeniality - is strong enough to make tough decisions.

"From what I know about her, she's a very thoughtful and nice person," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. "She's going to have to be very firm in her management style to make sure that when she's giving orders that folks are carrying out the orders."

Welch said Copeland is more than capable.

"Have you ever heard anyone referred to as having a steel hand with a velvet glove?" Welch asked. "That's Bonnie."

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