School CEO leaving

Copeland to step down July 1 after turbulent 3 years

June 20, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD AND LIZ BOWIE | SARA NEUFELD AND LIZ BOWIE,SUN REPORTERS

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland will step down July 1, ending a turbulent three-year stint punctuated by a crippling financial crisis, increased state oversight and political bickering between Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A source close to the school system said last night that Copeland's interim replacement will be Charlene Cooper Boston, superintendent of Wicomico County schools and a former city schools administrator.

Rumors of Copeland's departure have been swirling for weeks, as members of the school board grew increasingly frustrated with her management, which some criticized as weak. For days, Copeland insisted that she was not about to resign. Yesterday, school system officials said she and the school board had reached a mutual decision that it's time for her to leave.

In a carefully worded announcement, officials outlined Copeland's accomplishments but said nothing about the reason for her departure. Neither Copeland nor school board Chairman Brian D. Morris would comment beyond prepared remarks in the announcement, where they said they were proud of the work they did together.

Ehrlich and the campaign of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, O'Malley's opponent in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, both issued statements portraying Copeland's departure as indicative of a school system in turmoil. The governor said he is "disappointed that Baltimore City's leadership continues to fail its students."

But O'Malley said Copeland did "a terrific job" during challenging times.

"The job of being a big city school superintendent is tough enough," he said in an interview last night. "But she served at a time where our school system was turned into a political punching bag in a very unkind, unfair way, and she continued to persevere. ... I'm not sure that anyone else could have done a better job given the challenges that we faced."

Those challenges included an order last summer by a federal judge for the state to send managers to oversee all school system departments affecting special education, and a state attempt in March to take over 11 low-performing schools. In recent weeks, the state prosecutor's office began investigating allegations of financial misconduct among Copeland's senior staff, and a top aide was fired.

At least temporarily, Copeland will be replaced by Boston, who spent more than 30 years as a teacher and administrator in city schools. When she left four years ago to become the superintendent of Wicomico County schools, Boston was a top administrator overseeing a group of elementary and new schools. She was mentioned as a candidate for the CEO's job in 2003, along with Copeland.

O'Malley said he remembers Boston as "a very capable administrator." She could not be reached for comment.

Copeland, 56, told her staff of her intention to leave at a tearful meeting yesterday afternoon. The decision comes 10 months after the school board gave the chief executive officer a hefty raise and renewed her contract through 2008. Her compensation package for the 2005-2006 school year was worth at least $272,700.

System officials would not release the terms of Copeland's departure, but language in her contract indicates that she will be paid at least $100,000.

The school board met yesterday in a closed-door session before the announcement. Except for a posting inside school system headquarters, there was no advance public notice of the meeting, as legally required and despite a standing request from The Sun for such notice.

Copeland is the system's fourth chief executive officer since 1997, when the state and city entered into a partnership to run Baltimore's public schools. The governor and the mayor jointly appoint a school board, which hires and fires the CEO.

The board has chosen vastly different personalities for the top job. It first brought in Robert E. Schiller, who had led a number of school districts around the nation, while it chose a permanent CEO. Then Robert Booker, a Californian who had worked in the Los Angeles school district, was hired for his financial background. He was followed by Carmen V. Russo, a charismatic Floridian, whose strength was in high school and academic reform. She began the breakup of large high schools with $20 million in foundation support, but the reforms were costly.

Under Russo's watch, the system's deficit increased almost every year. The board gave her a critical annual review, and she left a year before her four-year contract was up.

In 2003, the board turned to Copeland, a quiet, less flashy personality, who had been the runner-up in the selection process the year Russo was chosen. Copeland was local and had experience working in school systems, foundations and with the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Yesterday's announcement raised concerns among community leaders and activists about high turnover at the helm of Maryland's lowest-performing and most closely watched school system, which enrolls 85,000 students.

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