Copeland's selection as CEO hailed

But some black leaders criticize school board's method of choosing her

April 12, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

As supporters cheered her on, an emotional Bonnie S. Copeland accepted yesterday her position as chief executive officer of Baltimore's public school system, pledging to do her best to serve the city's 96,000 schoolchildren.

Choking back tears, Copeland - who is the head of an educational foundation and a veteran Maryland educator - said she felt like she had "come home."

"I really hope this is the last time you'll hear about the CEO - the interim CEO - because this is all about the team," Copeland, 53, said. "I'm honored to be your team leader. I'm honored to support the team. This is my dream come true."

"Bravo, Bonnie! Bravo!" friends said - between hugs - after Copeland gave a short speech at the system's North Avenue headquarters yesterday.

The nine-member Board of School Commissioners chose Copeland to temporarily replace Carmen V. Russo, who announced last month her intention to leave, until board members complete a search for a permanent schools chief. Copeland will begin work July 1.

While Copeland's appointment was applauded by many, including state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, some African-American political and religious leaders criticized the selection process.

"I am not happy with the way this went down," City Councilman Melvin L. Stukes said, after he had been invited by board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch to take the podium.

Stukes said that he was not being critical of Copeland personally, but that he was frustrated that no African-American leaders - political, religious or otherwise - were consulted before the decision was made to hire Copeland.

"There are some of us in the African-American community that want to see fairness done ... and we don't feel that was done," he said.

Grasmick congratulated the school board for its decision.

"It's rare to find an individual who represents so many different perspectives," she said. "Bonnie is dedicated to the city of Baltimore. She understands the magnitude of the policies that will guide this system. ... We will not lose momentum [with] Bonnie assuming this responsibility."

Meanwhile, Stukes was joined in criticizing the process by other education activists and community leaders, including Bishop Douglas Miles, past president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

"This is an arrogant board," Miles said. "And they continue to deal with the community in an arrogant way."

After the news conference, Copeland personally thanked Stukes for his comments. She said later that she anticipated some backlash regarding the relatively closed process.

"I know that there will be other situations like that," she said. "People will have to judge me by my actions."

Even critics of the process have said that Copeland's resume indicates that she has the credentials to lead the system.

Since 2000, Copeland has served as executive director of the Fund for Educational Excellence - a 16-year-old organization that includes among its programs Achievement First, a reform-based initiative in more than 20 city schools. In that capacity, Copeland has worked with the school system in several areas, particularly high school reform.

She also 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. Copeland also has served on the city school board.

Copeland said she would like to be a candidate for the permanent position only if she is able to be successful as the temporary leader.

"I'm hoping we get off to a great start, hoping we can resolve this issue about process," she said. "And if all these things with the community could come together, then yes, I would like to be considered."

Copeland said that although the school board has given her the authority to bring in her own staff, she wants to take time to get to know current staff members first.

"This interim time is a nice luxury to get to know the people here better, and make sure they have the same philosophy about the needs of children as I do. Then I'll make some decisions about whether to go forward with the same team or go with a different team."

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