Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso tearfully announced his resignation Monday, ending a six-year tenure marked by bold yet often divisive reforms and casting uncertainty on the future of the long-troubled school system.
Under Alonso's leadership, city schools saw growth in test scores, graduation rates and enrollment, but his administration was dogged by fiscal problems and cheating scandals.
"I have enjoyed being the superintendent of the school system in ways that are so astonishing," Alonso said, choking back tears. "People kept telling me, 'It's a hard job.' And I kept thinking, 'Oh, you have no clue.' Until you're in this seat, you don't know how hard this job is. ... For me, this has been an unbelievable ride."
The schools chief, who is the longest-serving city superintendent in almost two decades, said he is leaving to spend more time with his elderly parents in New Jersey and will teach part time at Harvard University. He will step down June 30.
Tisha Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff since 2009, will serve as interim superintendent through the 2013-2014 school year, as the city's school board conducts a national search for Alonso's replacement.
Many public and education leaders praised the departing CEO, citing his efforts that shook up North Avenue bureaucracy, challenged traditional teachers' contracts and pushed for $1 billion in school construction money.
"The news is bittersweet," said school board Chairman Neil E. Duke. "He's been invaluable in pushing the district in the direction we needed to be pushed. He was moving us from a state of inertia that had bogged down the district for far too long. ... Dr. Alonso is the best superintendent in the country."
Gov. Martin O'Malley praised Alonso in a statement for "providing our children with a quality education and the tools they need to build a better future."
"Dr. Alonso has been an outstanding advocate and an effective leader who has taken our school system to a higher level of student achievement over the years," O'Malley said. "His dedication and passion for our children will be sorely missed."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake credited Alonso with making "significant progress improving student achievement, including rising test scores and graduation rates — all while overall school enrollment has increased, reversing decades of steady decline."
But others felt Alonso's sudden departure — coming in the second year of a four-year contract — cast a sense of uncertainty upon the school system.
Alonso's resignation comes in the aftermath of a historic victory shared by the school system, education advocates and city political leaders — passage by the state legislature last month of a measure to help finance a $1 billion plan to upgrade Baltimore's decrepit school infrastructure.
The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, a community activist, questioned why Alonso would embark on a 10-year plan to overhaul the city schools only to resign.
"It's almost as if he's abandoning ship," he said. "I'm very concerned about that. I question the professionalism to enact a plan and then leave. It's almost irresponsible, frankly."
Alonso, 55, said he'd contemplated resigning several times in the past few years as problems arose with his parents' health.
"I have no regrets," he said. "I feel if I remained, I would have personal regrets I would never be able to live with. It's the right time."
The Cuban-born, Harvard-educated schools chief was hired from New York City public schools in 2007 and brought an aggressive plan to transform Baltimore's struggling schools.
The first half of his tenure was marked by a series of reforms: closing more than one dozen failing schools and programs and creating several others that have thrived; decentralizing the system by cutting the headquarters staff by more than half; giving principals power over budget decisions; creating choice for city families, and competition among middle and high schools; and signing a landmark pay-for-performance teachers' union contract that was hailed as a model in the nation.
The schools chief also set out to help the district's most vulnerable and at-risk populations, such as students with behavior problems who for decades were pushed out of schools through suspensions, as well as special-education students and dropouts.
The school system soon marked a turning point. Graduation rates skyrocketed and dropout and suspension rates plummeted. Test scores saw historic growth. Enrollment and attendance in the city's schools showed steady growth.
And the former special-education teacher led the district into a settlement of a federal lawsuit that had been lodged against the system in 1986 alleging it failed to serve special-education students.
With the accomplishments, and the backing of a school board that granted him unprecedented autonomy to run the district as he saw fit, Alonso raised Baltimore's profile as a leader in urban education reform.