City schools face turnover among officials

Copeland has replaced much of her senior staff in recent months

November 27, 2005|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

This month, the chief financial officer and the general counsel left the Baltimore school system. Last month, it was the student support services officer. Over the summer, it was the chief of staff.

City schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland has replaced much of her senior staff in recent months, including three of her top four deputies - changes she describes as "just a normal course of events for an urban school system."

"People decide they want to retire, or they decide for health reasons they want to do something a little less stressful," she said.

Critics say the changes have brought instability to the system, and they question the appointment of some top officials without a background in education. Some also point out that many of the replacement officials come directly from Mayor Martin O'Malley's administration, an indication of the mayor's increasing effort to exert more influence over the school system.

"You have so many people coming in and out," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union. "You need some stability."

She said people making decisions about schools need to "have some background in education. ... Education is so different from other fields."

Copeland said some of her hires have experience in the business sector. She noted that school system officials were given business titles - she is chief executive officer, rather than superintendent - under 1997 legislation that reorganized the school system to help it operate more like a business.

The turnover in the city schools administration is substantially higher than that of surrounding suburban school systems in recent years. Although urban systems tend to have higher turnover than suburban systems, English and other longtime observers said the recent changes are unusual even for Baltimore.

Copeland's top deputies are the chief of staff, chief operating officer, chief financial officer and chief academic officer. All four positions have changed since Copeland took the helm of the city schools in November 2003, three of the four in the past six months.

Jeffery N. Grotsky, Copeland's chief of staff, took what he said was a voluntary demotion this summer to become an area academic officer, overseeing 27 elementary schools. He was replaced by Douglass Austin, a former city deputy housing commissioner.

Copeland said Grotsky told her at the time he became chief of staff that "he was eager to work with me to get things up and running, but his first love was always working directly with the schools."

Another former city deputy housing commissioner, Eric Letsinger, was appointed chief operating officer in May, a month after Carlton G. Epps resigned from the post without a public explanation.

An executive director of facilities and a director of building maintenance and inspections, both also former employees of the city housing department, were hired in August to come over from the O'Malley administration and work under Letsinger.

This month, Rose Piedmont left her job as chief financial officer after leading the system through a financial crisis. School officials would not say whether she resigned or was fired. Piedmont said she and other officials decided mutually that she would leave.

John Walker, an independent contractor with the system's finance office, was named interim chief financial officer.

Copeland replaced her chief academic officer more than a year ago. Chief Academic Officer Linda Chinnia has been in her position since March 2004 and has more than three decades of experience in the city schools. She replaced Cassandra W. Jones, who was removed from her position by the school board at the height of the fiscal crisis.

Other departures include:

Paul Benson, the city schools police chief, resigned in June along with his two top deputies. Col. Antonio Williams, a veteran of the city police force, was named schools police chief last month.

Gayle Amos, the student support services officer, who oversaw departments including special education, went on extended leave in August and announced her resignation last month. Her interim replacement is Maryanne Ralls, the system's director of student services. In addition, the system created a new position, director of special education.

William Boden, the human resources officer, was replaced this summer by Gary Thrift, a former area academic officer. Copeland said Boden was a retired executive from the private sector who never planned to hold the job permanently.

Anthony J. Trotta, the school system's longtime attorney, left this month. Officials would not say whether he resigned or was fired. Brian Williams, an associate counsel handling employment and labor negotiations, was named interim general counsel.

Judith Donaldson, the school board executive, retired last month.

Trotta and Donaldson reported to the school board, not Copeland. Amos and Donaldson had both been with the school system for more than eight years. Trotta had worked for the system since 1994.

The changes have come as a federal judge in a 21-year-old special-education lawsuit sent state managers this summer to oversee eight city school system departments that affect special education, from transportation to human resources.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who appointed the state managers, declined to comment directly on the administrative turnover, but she said generally that "school operations are complex, and stability becomes important to people understanding how educational systems operate."

While top officials should ensure that administrative jobs are filled with high-quality people, she said, "stability is important in terms of communication between the administration and schools."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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