Russo telecasts a lot of show for so little tell

EDUCATION BEAT

Interviews: The ex-city schools chief's chats with TV reporters about the financial crisis aired for days, but didn't offer much news.

April 07, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

CARMEN V. Russo wouldn't talk to Sun reporter Liz Bowie as she prepared Sunday's blockbuster 3,900-word story on how the city schools plunged into financial crisis. But the former Baltimore schools chief talked to the city's two dominant television stations - and adroitly managed to go around the newspaper, answering charges of mismanagement not just once, but over several days.

Both WBAL-TV education reporter Tim Tooten and WJZ-TV veteran Richard Sher had been seeking interviews with Russo for weeks. Their break came the middle of last week, no doubt as Russo realized Bowie's "Road to Disaster" story was in the final editing stages.

Through her lawyer, Stuart H. Grozbean of Rockville, Russo agreed to be interviewed Saturday near her Boca Raton, Fla., home. The reporters flew separately to Palm Beach and conducted back-to-back interviews on the grounds at Tooten's hotel, palm trees swaying in the background.

By agreement, Tooten went first, and so did WBAL, broadcasting a segment on its 6 p.m. newscast Saturday. This allowed the station to boast an "exclusive," though it lasted but five hours (apparently an eternity in TV news). WJZ didn't claim an exclusive, but promised Russo would "finally break her silence."

Both stations telecast their interviews in segments that continued through the weekend and into this week, finally adding reactions from Mayor Martin O'Malley and others.

What did Russo say?

At her hiring in 2000, she was misled about the extent of the gathering deficits. She "raised alarm and red flags everywhere." Blame for the crisis "must be spread around." Those who blame her are "people trying to rewrite history and people wanting a scapegoat."

Although WJZ teased about "startlingly new charges" from Russo, I didn't hear any. Russo, no doubt carefully coached, came across as entirely reasonable, a selfless public servant with a "passion about improving academic achievement," but one misled by those around her. However, she criticized no one by name and praised Mark Smolarz, the one-time chief operating and financial officer, for his "honesty and integrity."

Both reporters probed for a villain, but Russo wouldn't bite. "I don't want to talk about people," she said.

To Sher, in the segment that aired Saturday night (repeated on Monday evening), Russo said, "I would never misinform anyone."

By way of defending the $100,000 paid her driver, Russo said she did not know Baltimore well and often needed transportation late at night. Besides, she said, she had received an anonymous death threat, "something that always freaks you out."

And she wasn't fired - if you believe her and not the school board that pushed her out. Russo told both television reporters that she had told state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick in October 2002 that she would leave in the summer of 2003, a year short of filling out a four-year contract.

A spokesman for Grasmick said yesterday that Russo, in their informal chats, "did indicate some dissatisfaction from time to time," but the state superintendent couldn't remember the city schools chief being so specific about her plans. (Grasmick, of course, wasn't Russo's boss.) Besides, in October 2002 Russo was in the running for a high-ranking job in Florida, a job that surely would have prompted her to leave immediately had it been offered.

Tooten asked Russo if she had regrets about her Baltimore experience. "No," she said. "I retired, as you know."

Tooten, the only Baltimore television reporter who covers education as a beat, told me he felt "people really wanted to hear from Carmen Russo, needed to hear from her."

I suppose Tooten is right, but after three days of this stuff, I was beginning to agree with the mayor. Russo, who as of yesterday still wasn't talking to The Sun, "was the party [who] should have addressed" the financial crisis, O'Malley said Monday evening. If she knew from the start that she had been terribly misinformed, "then she should have left."

Hopkins urging its staff to give at the office

Universities and colleges are turning to a previously untapped source in fund raising: their own employees. In a $1.5 billion drive that ended in 2000, the Johns Hopkins University raised $38 million from donations made by 10,000 employees.

This month, as part of a $2 billion campaign that started in 2002, Hopkins is again seeking donations from faculty and staff.

Some of the money raised will go to strengthen the university's endowment for student aid, a worthy cause at a school where tuition next year will be $30,140.

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