New city schools chief ready for tough choices

Leadership: CEO Bonnie S. Copeland's straightforward style has won her praise as she faces a $52 million deficit.

November 15, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

One day after announcing that the cash-strapped Baltimore school system was preparing to lay off up to 1,000 employees, new schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland gathered more than 150 principals to personally explain what had gone wrong and to ask the school leaders to do the near-impossible: find programs, materials, or even people in their schools that they could do without.

"I'm asking for your help," she told them. "We're all in this together."

In the few moments of silence that ticked by, Copeland wondered how the system's badly battered principals would respond to being asked, once again, to make do with less.

She prepared herself for their anger.

What she got was a standing ovation.

Copeland's straightforward presentation and the principals' response are an indication of the leader many say she is - a seasoned educator with a welcoming, inclusive style, unafraid to make tough decisions and stand by them once they're made.

"Nobody is excited about the problems that are facing us. Nobody wants to lose a program or a person," said Sandra V. Ashe, principal of Rosemont Elementary School. "But we applauded her because of her honesty."

The applause was gratifying for Copeland, who had been saddled with the nightmare task of slashing an overspent budget hours after being given what she had at one point considered to be her dream job - chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools.

Copeland was appointed CEO of the city schools Tuesday, making permanent the interim position she had held since July. Less than 24 hours later, she announced that the system would deal with a $52 million deficit through large-scale layoffs.

Only weeks before appointing Copeland, the nine-member school board had begun a national search to find a new leader. But the board changed course suddenly after former state legislator and financial adviser Robert R. Neall told the board that it needed stable top leadership immediately to successfully control spending.

The appointment was laced with irony for Copeland, who, three years ago, had been passed over for the permanent job in favor of New York's high school reform dynamo Carmen V. Russo. Many of the financial problems Copeland is charged with fixing were created on Russo's watch.

Copeland doesn't gloat about securing the job for which she was once turned down. And she won't say a bad word about Russo, or others who have come and gone.

"Our job is to fix the problems, not the blame," she likes to say.

Those who hired her, however, say there is no doubt that Copeland is the right person for the job.

"We're putting a lot of faith in her," said board member Camay Murphy. "We knew there were some very hard, very ugly decisions that had to be made. We didn't want those kinds of decisions to be made by someone who was in an interim position. We needed someone who was fully committed, someone who was going to go with us through the troubled water."

Many people think they've found that someone in Copeland.

"I think that Bonnie is a true leader," said Walter Sondheim Jr., considered the father of Maryland education reform. "I don't think they could have a better person to work on these issues in the Baltimore City public schools."

Those who have worked with Copeland, 54, throughout her 30-year career in education said the school system's fourth leader since 1997 has the right mix of skills and talents to make a real difference in the city schools' culture.

She listens, they say. She's sincere, they say. She's thoughtful and deliberate and serious about building consensus before decisions are made.

"I don't think she views people as working for her, more that she is working in partnership with you," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the system's chief of staff. "She'll ask you what you think, and then she'll say, `Based on what I've heard, now here's what we're going to do. Let's develop a plan to get it done.'"

Since replacing Russo four months ago as schools chief, Copeland has accomplished many of the things she said she would.

She said she wanted to more deeply study the way money flowed in the system, which had been carrying a multimillion-dollar deficit. She has done that - Neall stepped in at Copeland's request to do so, and a private accounting firm is in the middle of auditing the books.

She said she wanted to cooperate more with state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the mayor's office, and has already incorporated many of their ideas - including a successful schools version of Mayor Martin O'Malley's CitiStat management tool, which many school officials say has helped uncover problems that might otherwise have stayed hidden.

"There weren't a lot of supporters," when Copeland said SchoolStat would be a weekly occurrence at the system's North Avenue headquarters, Grotsky said. "People were like, `We tried it before. It didn't work that well.' Bonnie said, `That was the past. We're going to make this work.'"

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