Mr. Alonso's Reward

Our View: City Schools Chief's Bonus Is Well-deserved, But The Timing - Right Before State Budget Cuts Are Announced - Is Awkward

August 24, 2009

Given the drastic, across-the-board gains in student achievement Baltimore City public schools have registered over the past two years, few would deny schools chief Andres A. Alonso deserves the $29,000 bonus the school board awarded him this year.

Yes, that's a lot of money, especially coming on top of his $250,000 annual salary, which is among the highest in the state for school superintendents.

But an approximately 10 percent bonus isn't out of line for a CEO responsible for a $1.1 billion system with thousands of employees, and it's actually considerably less than that for a comparable position in the private sector. Mr. Alonso's contract with the school board contains provisions for awarding bonuses of up to $30,000 if he meets specified performance benchmarks.

More important, Mr. Alonso has taken a school system that long had been failing and successfully turned it around, proving in the process that public education can work in this city and that all its children can excel. That's a feat worth rewarding whenever and wherever it occurs.

Still, the announcement of Mr. Alonso's well-earned bonus comes at an awkward moment. The state is facing its worst budget crisis in decades, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has warned that more cuts are on the way.

Those reductions almost certainly will mean fewer state dollars going to local governments. More than $400 million is expected to be cut this week from the state budget by Mr. O'Malley and his fellow members of the Board of Public Works. Since public education is one of the single biggest expenses for state and local governments, schools are unlikely to escape unscathed.

The federal stimulus package passed by Congress allocated $1.8 billion to Maryland for education this year, part of which was targeted at stabilizing teachers' salaries and avoiding layoffs.

But depending on how bad Maryland's budget deficit eventually turns out to be, that may not be enough ensure that no teachers' jobs in Baltimore are lost. Even if schools escape this week's round of cuts, the budget crisis could easily worsen and more reductions may come down the road.

As it is, many of those most directly responsible for the recent improvements in city standardized test scores - classroom teachers and paraprofessionals - received no across-the-board pay raises this year because of the dire financial outlook.

Given such uncertainty, Mr. Alonso might consider forgoing at least part of the bonus money awarded by the school board as a gesture of solidarity with his hard-working staff. He could donate it to charity or ask the school board to apply it to a project he deems especially important to build on the progress the system has made.

No one doubts Mr. Alonso's inspirational leadership and dedication to the task have entitled him to generous recompense from the citizens of Baltimore, or that what he chooses to do with the money is a private matter entirely up to him. Acknowledging in some way the sacrifices his colleagues have made to achieve the successes Baltimore's schools have enjoyed under his stewardship would only endear him further to an already grateful community.

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