Trouble follows schools official

DeStefano is often focus of controversy

May 28, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

This school year, Frank DeStefano has been the common denominator in some of the Baltimore school system's most fractious issues.

He was instrumental in the selection of a middle school language arts curriculum so controversial that the system scrapped it midyear. And he lowered the admissions standards at elite high schools.

The system's No. 2 academic official, DeStefano said he has merely been carrying out the vision of the city's top school leaders. Schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland has called him "an implementer."

But interviews with DeStefano's current and former colleagues tell the story of an educator who has bounced from one dispute to the next, who has overseen discredited programs and who has relied on friendships with influential people to succeed.

Copeland hired DeStefano to oversee city high schools three years ago, though he had no experience in high schools and was driven out of a previous job in New York City amid allegations of financial mismanagement and a dictatorial leadership style. In picking him, Copeland passed up a qualified internal candidate recommended by an interview committee.

Today, DeStefano makes $135,200 a year, one of the 10-highest salaries in the school system, but he does not have any type of education certification in Maryland. Also, the city school board has awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to organizations run by his friends and associates, a Sun review has found. One of those contracts was for Studio Course, the middle school language arts curriculum, which DeStefano helped recommend to the board.

DeStefano, 50, also has been the architect of Baltimore's effort to break up its large high schools into smaller, more personalized environments -- a tactic he tried with little success in Brooklyn's middle schools.

His supporters said he is an innovative thinker and visionary instructional leader.

"He was an aggressive reformer who had a lot of the right ideas but was often not as careful as he could have been about some of the necessary diplomacy and politics," said Bill de Blasio, a former school board member in DeStefano's New York district who ran Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign and now serves on the New York City Council. "I always thought his heart was in the right place."

DeStefano said his self-described "tough as nails" approach is rooted in a commitment to children and a desire to hold the adults who educate them accountable.

"Maybe I don't have the right bedside manner," he said in an interview. "I'm impatient. Visit some of our schools. You'll see why I'm impatient."

Many who know DeStefano said substance as well as style is the source of their concern.

"Frank is a very powerful person in the Baltimore City public schools," said City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, an advocate on several education issues. "And time after time when I'm running into trouble, it's Frank that's at the root of the problem."

Beyond this school year, DeStefano's future in Baltimore is uncertain. He was initially hired for a temporary stint, which has been extended multiple times. A bachelor who lives in Mount Vernon, he said he never commits to a place for more than a year at a time. In New York, he said, he knew it was time to leave when he became the news.

The Brooklyn native was mentored in New York by some of the country's educational giants, including Anthony J. Alvarado. Alvarado was the chancellor overseeing all New York City schools in the 1980s, until he was accused of improperly borrowing money from subordinates and lying on mortgage applications. But Alvarado bounced back to become superintendent of Manhattan's Community School District 2, which gained national acclaim for its literacy reforms.

In the late 1990s, when Copeland was director of Baltimore's nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, she wanted city educators to visit District 2. But Alvarado was leaving New York, and officials referred her to a district run by his protege, DeStefano. That's how she met DeStefano.

During DeStefano's last years in New York, the Baltimore school system paid tens of thousands of dollars for the Fund -- which was overseeing a reform project -- to take administrators and teachers to visit his schools.

DeStefano's resume lists him as a consultant for the Fund from 1999 to 2000, though he and Copeland said he was not paid.

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