Failure to land Russo's beau a job should serve as lesson

March 07, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

WE SHOULDA given Jimmy that job. You hear what I'm sayin'? We shoulda given Jimmy a job. We coulda made things right. We coulda kept Carmen here and given her some stability and -- who knows? -- maybe we wouldn't have these problems today.

You know what I'm talkin' about? Go ahead, eat something, and I'll explain.

Says here -- I'm reading my own newspaper now -- that Baltimore's school board found former schools CEO Carmen Russo so bad at watching the budget that they asked her to get outta town last year, which she did almost right away. Now she's in a million-dollar house on a golf course in Florida, and the city school system is in the tank.

Big mess, right?

From Carmen's February 2003 job evaluation: "CEO was not monitoring, directing or correcting the [Baltimore City public school] budget problem until it became a system-wide crisis."

Should there be consequences for this? What happens if you're the one who's on watch when a multimillion-dollar financial crisis develops? Nothing? You get to just retire to Boca Raton?

Tellya one thing -- you or I did that, we'd have guys lookin' for us.

But let me get back to Jimmy, and what I'm sayin'. I'm sayin' we probably coulda avoided this whole mess if we'd just given Jimmy that job.

This goes back a couple years.

Carmen Russo was a smart, alluring, intriguing, dynamic education professional, and very well-dressed, with the designer eyeglasses. Very impressive.

People in the school system here kept telling us we were lucky to have her. Board members were driving the reforms that were improving the system's academic results, but Carmen, she was like queen of school reform, and on the fast track, too.

Test scores started to creep up while she was in charge, from 2000 to 2003. The city-state paid her $192,000, and gave her a couple of nice bonuses.

What happened?

I'll tell you what happened: Carmen was flying to Florida, like, every third weekend, and not just to maintain the tan.

She was doing the Sunshine Shuttle cuz'a Jimmy.

She had a boyfriend down there, name of Jimmy. She had family -- kids and grandkids -- and a nice house in one of those gated places with the lawns green as craps tables. But she had this Jimmy guy, too.

And what happened? Some people in Baltimore -- one, in particular, Dick Berndt, Lawyer to the Mayors -- tried to get this Jimmy a job up here. The thinking was: Bring Jimmy to Baltimore, make Carmen happy, get her to settle down, buy a house, become a pillar of the community who shows up on the party pages more frequently than Rhea Feikin, that kind of thing.

"I think everyone appreciates the good job that Carmen is doing, and [Berndt] saw that there was a need for some leadership on this issue, which albeit might be a small one, but affects her ability to be here all the time and do a very difficult job," Martin O'Mayor said. That was in April 2001.

So, good idea.

But it wasn't like we could lure Jimmy here with a $25,000-a-year job sitting on a stool, dispatching trucks out of a public works yard. I don't think this guy woulda been happy inspecting sidewalks, either, or even taking a fun job, like Zamboni driver at the Mimi DiPietro ice rink.

What they tried to do was find Jimmy a $110,000-a-year job for three years, preferably in athletics -- maybe as an assistant coach at a school, maybe a college, maybe Coppin State. And what they wanted to do was have private foundations -- those nice people who give money to, like, Health Care for the Homeless -- put up the money to create this job for Jimmy.

You follow me? They had this whole elaborate scheme.

But it never happened, and Carmen kept flying back and forth to Florida, and at one point in the middle of her administration, she even considered taking some big-deal chancellor's job down there. She woulda become the Nancy Grasmick of Florida. She was looking to leave Baltimore when she was still needed here, and the school board still thought she was the cat's meow.

The prominent political leader, Pete Rawlings -- God rest his soul -- said at the time: "I think it's a sad commentary on the sophistication of Baltimore City that we were not able to bring [Russo's] significant other to the city in a position of employment that would have kept him here and her happy."

Me, I think it's a sad commentary on the local business community. Nonprofit foundations shouldn't have been asked to play sponsor-a-boyfriend. There are plenty of big companies around here with an interest -- or so they say -- in seeing Baltimore kids become better-educated so they won't write sentences with "woulda" and "coulda" in them. They should have made this happen (just as they should be involved in fixing the current mess).

Maybe Carmen would have had a more settled life here. Maybe she would have watched the books better. We'll never know for sure. But live and learn.

Next time: Give the Jimmy the Job.

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