N.Y. official to lead city schools

Troubled system is getting `the best,' board chairman says

June 14, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

Saying that they have snagged one of the nation's most innovative administrators, Baltimore school board members named New York City's No. 2 education official yesterday as their next chief executive officer.

Andres Alonso, a Cuban immigrant who turns 50 today, will leave his job overseeing instruction in the nation's largest school district to take on one of the toughest assignments in urban education.

In Baltimore, he will inherit a school system less than one-tenth the size of the one he works in now, but one beset with problems that include a decades-old special education lawsuit and deteriorating buildings.

Introducing himself to the community yesterday at school system headquarters, Alonso said he is coming to Baltimore for the long haul. His contract will be for four years, the legal limit, but he said he would have made a longer commitment if the law allowed and will face penalties if he leaves early. He will be the system's sixth leader in the past decade.

"I am here to stay," he told 150 politicians, administrators and community activists, vowing to meet each of them in the next three months. "But in order to stay, I need your help. It's never about one person."

The crowd softened to Alonso - a bearded, bespectacled bachelor - over the course of his remarks, eventually giving him a standing ovation. But many in the room were friends and supporters of interim CEO Charlene Cooper Boston, who publicly said she had applied for the job. Boston's eyes filled with tears as she thanked everyone for "a great year."

Boston, a longtime city schools administrator and superintendent in Wicomico County before that, took the helm a year ago, after Bonnie S. Copeland stepped down.

Interim CEO praised

"Dr. Boston came back to us like an angel at a time when we needed her help," school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said at the public gathering. In a statement, he said Boston was "a very strong finalist" for the long-term position.

"We dared to go after a coveted, transformational educator," Morris said in the statement. "We went after the best, and we got him."

Alonso said he got a call about a month and a half ago from a representative of PROACT Search Inc., which the school board had hired to find a new CEO. He said he was happy in his current job but agreed to a confidential meeting with the board, and that one meeting led to another.

In his new role, Alonso said, he sees the opportunity to help a system that is a manageable size to realize its potential. New York has more than 1 million students; Baltimore has 83,000. New York has more than 2,000 school buildings; Baltimore has fewer than 200.

He said he would not have accepted the offer if the school board hadn't committed itself to giving him the authority to make decisions and "cut through the politics" that typically surround the city schools.

The announcement was made as test scores were released showing substantial progress in New York City and Baltimore. Morris said he expects Alonso to take Baltimore's steady progress and make it "exponential."

The announcement also was made in the same week that the journal Education Week released a study showing Baltimore with the third-worst high school graduation rate among the nation's biggest school systems in 2004. New York ranked fifth-worst.

Alonso said yesterday that he wants to be judged on Baltimore's graduation rate.

"If I don't have improvement in the graduation rate while I'm superintendent, I haven't done my job and somebody ought to fire me," he said in an interview with The Sun's editorial board, part of a whirlwind day of meetings.

He also said he would support paying qualified teachers more in hard-to-fill subject areas such as middle school math and science.

In every classroom, he said, he wants instruction tailored to students' individual needs, interventions for students who need extra help and a belief by the teacher that all children can learn.

Morris said Alonso was among about 25 candidates for the job, about half of whom the school board interviewed. The board must vote formally on a contract with Alonso, at which time his salary will be finalized and made public, Morris said.

Alonso said his salary this year as New York's deputy chancellor is $214,000. Boston's base salary is $212,000, with total compensation of $286,200 before bonuses.

Boston was well-liked in the school system, but some critics said that with so many old friends reporting to her, she had trouble holding people accountable.

In April, The Sun reported that the school board had passed a budget submitted by Boston's staff that was filled with errors and discrepancies. Last week, the newspaper reported that staff members had falsely certified making building repairs.

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