Copeland hired as CEO of schools

Worsening finances, likely layoffs cut short search by city board

November 12, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Saying it needed stable leadership to address worsening financial problems that would require further staff layoffs, Baltimore's school board voted unanimously yesterday to appoint Bonnie S. Copeland the system's chief executive officer for the next two years.

Board President Patricia L. Welch said Copeland, who has held the job on an interim basis since July 1, "has dealt with serious and complex issues, and the board has confidence in her leadership during this crucial time."

Welch said the board had been convinced by a recent review of the system's finances that it must take "immediate and definitive action" to cut spending this year, including laying off employees.

The system was running a $52 million cumulative deficit by the end of the past fiscal year, which ended June 30. The degree to which the district's financial situation has changed since then or how many employees will be laid off was not made public at last night's school board meeting. However, Welch said last night that if spending continued at the current pace, the deficit would be "far worse," and one source close to the discussions said the staff reductions would be "drastic."

Another source said the layoffs would possibly be as many as several hundred.

The sudden appointment of Copeland, which was voted on yesterday afternoon in an executive session, halted a national search that had begun a month ago. A public forum that had been scheduled for 5:30 p.m. today at the system's North Avenue headquarters to discuss the search will instead be a time for the public to hear more details about the financial crisis facing the system.

The board's action was taken after former state legislator Robert R. Neall - who was brought in by Copeland to give the system financial advice - made a series of private recommendations to the board yesterday afternoon. While he did not directly suggest to the board that it appoint Copeland, Neall said the district needed stable top leadership immediately to successfully control spending, according to sources.

The board had approved a budget in June that would have cut in half a $52 million cumulative deficit. To do that, the system would have had to reduce its staff by 600 this past summer through attrition. It also would have to reduce spending by $50 million over the previous year to have a balanced budget for the current year. Instead, the school system said it hired this past summer at least 200 more teachers than it needed for the declining number of students who showed up at schools in September.

Administrators announced this fall that they were laying off about 80 teachers whose certificates had lapsed. But Brian Dale, a union representative, said he believed that many of those teachers had produced documentation to prove they were certified. As a result, they were not laid off.

Welch said the system was putting together a "cost containment plan," some details of which would be presented today.

"A lot is going to have to happen to solve the problem," Neall said yesterday afternoon before briefing the board. "Time is of the essence. There is no doubt about it."

Mayor Martin O'Malley said he believed that layoffs will likely affect staffing at the system's North Avenue headquarters.

"When action is taken, it will be painful," O'Malley said, "but we'll change our school system for the better for many years to come. It's pain that we have been putting off for sometime. Now we have to do this."

Copeland, who last week was pondering whether to seek the full-time position, thanked the board for its support and pledged to keep the education of each student a top priority even during the turmoil of the financial problems.

"I know we will have some rocky roads ahead," she said. "I will never forget our core mission."

Parent leaders and community activists, who had just received letters inviting them to be part of the search for a new CEO, appeared stunned last night at the abruptness of the announcement.

Larry Gaines, a longtime parent advocate, called Copeland "dedicated" and "sincere." Gaines said that the new CEO listens to the community, and the system, he said, does need stability.

"The decision is a good decision," Gaines said. "The method is the problem."

Last fall, the school board was criticized by community members at public sessions for having quickly selected Copeland to be the interim CEO, saying that an African-American should have been considered.

Copeland brings a level of comfort to many school advocates because she is a Marylander with deep ties to the education community, having worked on both the state and county school levels.

"It's not self-advancement or ego with Bonnie," said C. William Struever, a former school board member. "It's all about children and what's best for the schools. Period. End of story."

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