School officials look to Boston to build bridges

Interim chief says she'll tackle special-ed compliance first

June 21, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

As Charlene Cooper Boston was officially named interim chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools yesterday, community leaders looked to the longtime educator to build bridges between the city school system and the state board of education.

Boston, 61, said she wants to immediately tackle the school system's compliance with special education, the subject of a long-running lawsuit in which the system and the state are co-defendants. Last year, a federal judge ordered the state to send managers to oversee all system departments affecting special education after the system failed to provide tens of thousands of hours of speech therapy, counseling and other mandated services.

"I'm hopeful," said state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who has sparred with departing schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland over control of the 85,000-student city school system. "We want to find a good partner, and I feel extremely optimistic about Charlene being that partner."

It is unclear how long Boston, who has served as Wicomico County's superintendent for the past four years, will fill the top job in Baltimore. School board Chairman Brian D. Morris said she will serve until the system names a long-term replacement, unless it decides to keep her on permanently. He said the system has not yet negotiated a contract with Boston, meaning her salary has not been set.

Boston said yesterday that she has the experience necessary to move the system forward. Before becoming superintendent in Wicomico, she spent 35 years as a teacher, principal and administrator in Baltimore schools. Her specialty is early childhood education.

She announced this year that she would not seek to have her contract with Wicomico renewed when it expires June 30. She said she planned to retire, before she was approached last week about coming back to Baltimore, where she had applied to be chief executive officer previously. For whatever time she is in the system, she said, she is committed to maintaining financial stability. Copeland has spent most of her tenure restoring stability in the wake of a $58 million deficit.

Morris said the system will form a search committee, and might hire a search firm, as it seeks to replace Copeland, who announced Monday that she will step down July 1 in a mutual agreement with the school board. Neither Copeland nor board members have provided a reason for her departure, but some on the board had grown increasingly frustrated with a management style that has been described as weak.

For the second day in a row, system officials declined to release details about how much money Copeland will receive when she steps down. Her compensation package for the 2005-2006 school year was worth at least $272,700.

Copeland has not announced what she plans to do next, but she hinted that it could involve some form of continued involvement in the city schools. At a news conference yesterday about newly released test scores, which went up in some grades, she was asked if she wanted to stick around to see the scores increase more.

"Oh, I'm going to be around to see these scores go up," she replied, adding that "I'm not leaving the planet."

Mayor Martin O'Malley and Grasmick - two people who rarely agree on anything involving the city schools - both said yesterday that they look forward to working with Boston.

"I always found her to be open to new ideas, to be willing to accept innovation, to hold people accountable, to really seek out talent," Grasmick said last night.

Boston is returning to Baltimore at a time when the condition of the city schools is a major issue in the gubernatorial race as O'Malley seeks the Democratic nomination. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, O'Malley's opponent in the primary, issued statements Monday portraying Copeland's departure as indicative of a school system in crisis.

Boston, a Baltimore native with bachelor's and master's degrees from Morgan State University and a doctorate from the University of Maryland, did not discount the possibility that she would apply for the long-term job of CEO. But she said initially she is going to focus on her role as an interim replacement, giving the school board time to assess her performance.

"I am really not pursuing a full-time position," she said.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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