Big Job

City Schools

July 01, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun Reporter

Andres Alonso officially becomes chief executive officer of the Baltimore City Public School System today. He will face daunting challenges as he oversees approximately 180 schools and 82,000 students in a system that is broadly viewed as seriously troubled. In an open letter to the new schools chief, Sun education reporter Sara Neufeld describes some of what's in store for him.

Dear Dr. Alonso,

Welcome to Baltimore. You've got a big job ahead of you as the new CEO of the public schools - so big, in fact, that some would say you're crazy for even trying. I don't know about New York, but this city doesn't think twice about chewing up its educational leaders and spitting them out like day-old lunch meat.

At the same time, an awful lot of people out there are hoping that you're the one who will be different. The one who will outlast the others. The one who will give our kids their passport to a bright future.

Remember the opportunity you got in school in New Jersey, when you showed up as a 12-year-old Cuban immigrant speaking no English and, a few short years later, found yourself bound for the Ivy League? Can you mass-reproduce that, please? On the order of 82,000 times?

Today, the first official day of your contract, I offer you a summary - a cheat sheet, if you will - of some of the challenges that will confront you in this formidable endeavor. From lawsuits to crumbling buildings to teacher turnover, the list is long, but it couldn't possibly cover everything. And, I'm sorry to say, many of the challenges have more to do with navigating politics and bureaucracies than with educating children.

Since most of your educational career has been in special education, let's start there.

Back in 1984, while you were still an attorney on Wall Street, some lawyers sued the Baltimore school system and the state of Maryland on behalf of children with disabilities, alleging they were being denied their right to a decent education.

Through all your time traveling the world, teaching in Newark, getting your master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard, rising through the ranks to the No. 2 position in New York City schools, the lawsuit carried on.

Twenty-three years later, the school system is still operating under a consent decree. It has yet to complete the 90,000-plus hours of makeup counseling, speech therapy and other services that it's owed to kids since 2005. There are court-ordered state administrators in every school system department that affects special education, from transportation to human resources. Those administrators will work alongside your staff, but they report to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, not to you.

Getting along with Dr. Grasmick will be an important part of your job. As your predecessor Bonnie S. Copeland can attest, she can make your life a lot more difficult if she doesn't trust you - attempting to seize control of 11 of your failing schools, for example, as she did last year before the General Assembly blocked her.

But if the two of you get along too well, you may cross the governor, Martin O'Malley, who has made no secret of his dislike of his education secretary. He just hasn't been in office long enough to appoint a majority of the state school board that can orchestrate her ouster. Some speculate that a cozy relationship with Nancy hurt the outgoing interim CEO, Charlene Cooper Boston, in her pursuit of your new job.

Governor O'Malley, by the way, is a Democrat who used to be the mayor of Baltimore. At the polls last November, he defeated the former Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an ally of Dr. Grasmick. But don't count the state superintendent out of the game just yet: With friends on both sides of the political aisle, she has outlasted a throng of politicians and is now the nation's longest-serving state superintendent.

This year, you'll have a mayoral election to contend with. Then there's the ongoing question of who should be your boss. Right now, you report to a school board appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor. That structure, dubbed the "city-state partnership," has been criticized for its failure to hold either partner accountable. You should have seen the blame game that went on three years ago when the city schools suffered a financial meltdown.

Some groups, such as the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, want you reporting to a locally elected school board. The proposal gaining more ground politically involves returning control of the city schools to the mayor, the way it used to be, and the way you're used to in New York.

The mayor ceded partial control of the schools to the state a decade ago in exchange for increased funding. The agreement was supposed to settle two other lawsuits, in which the American Civil Liberties Union and the city accuse the state of unlawfully underfunding Baltimore's schools. But those suits were merely consolidated, continuing today.

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