Not a moment to spare

April 16, 2003

THERE IS ONLY one way to succeed as an interim schools chief in Baltimore: Don't act like one.

Bonnie S. Copeland instinctively should know this, as a former city schools commissioner and former acting state schools superintendent.

History has shown that interim chiefs free of entanglements in Baltimore's political morass can make swift and positive changes: But Ms. Copeland doesn't arrive as an outsider. She has deep ties at the city and state school boards, so there'll be no honeymoon or time for "acting" leadership. She needs to demonstrate right away:

Management prowess. She must restore confidence in city school system leaders. Principals have expressed dismay with the system's chief academic officer. The school system lacks a chief financial officer. The top facilities department managers have been dismissed in the scandal over lead-tainted water, a problem that will require consistent oversight until every school is declared safe. Ms. Copeland's first priority must be reining in management, and ensuring that every level responds to the needs and concerns of students and their families.

Fiscal leadership. She must get under control the school system's nearly $900 million budget. Baltimore will benefit from the state legislature's approval of extra education funding, but the city schools budget remains saddled by carry-over deficits. Some of this is tied to increasing health costs that must be addressed in negotiations with teachers, principals and other union employees whose contracts expire in June. The outcome, for better or worse, will be all hers to handle even though she's not officially at the table for the negotiations.

Educational insight. Summer is no vacation for Baltimore schools: Ms. Copeland will take office just before the doors open for citywide summer school. She must ensure that the expensive organizational mistakes of last year are not repeated, and that the program, as intended, reduces the number of failing students passed to the next class. Meanwhile, she'll come on board at the peak of hiring new teachers, continuing reforms at every level but especially in the high schools, and preparing schools to reopen in September.

A sizable lobby in business and education circles views Ms. Copeland's assignment as a walk-up to the permanent position. But she should not be afraid of stepping on the toes of those who will determine if she is to have the job.

For the sake of Baltimore's children, we hope her performance as the interim chief will at least be the benchmark by which other candidates are measured.

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