Replacing Alonso: How Baltimore can find the best

A school board with new members and new leadership faces a major challenge in selecting a new CEO

July 09, 2013|By James Campbell

Andrés Alonso accomplished what few other urban school superintendents have been able to when leaving office. Considered one of the nation's most successful CEO's, and, after six years, one of the longest serving in Baltimore, he left while at the top of his game. In the 10 years prior to his 2007 appointment, there had been seven Baltimore City school leaders. The school board, which has said it will conduct a national search, will be hard pressed to find a replacement to match his success.

Replacing the head of a school system, especially an urban one, is no easy task. Faced with budget constraints, constant pressure to raise test scores, active political and community constituencies, and continuous board turnover, the job requires a multi-talented individual who is an academician, politician, mediator, labor negotiator, budget expert and facilities manager. No wonder the average tenure for an urban superintendent is three years and the number of qualified applicants for the job is shrinking.

A 2011 survey by American Association of School Administrators (AASA) found that half of the working superintendents planned to retire by 2016. AASA also reported that many deputy or associate superintendents are not interested in moving up. In one state, Ohio, retirees make up about 30 percent of the superintendents. Complicating the search even further is the fact that most school districts are much smaller than Baltimore's 85,000 students. Of the nation's 14,000 districts, the median size is 2,000.

With a number of districts in search of a new superintendent, including Boston, El Paso and New Orleans, the board will need to aggressively reach out to attract the best qualified candidates from across the country, as well as to evaluate our local talent. Two lessons learned from the last search, of which I was a part, that might be helpful this time around are the importance of board unity and maintaining the confidentiality of the applicants.

Board unity: The board members will need to reach consensus, preferably unanimous agreement, on the qualities they are looking for in a new leader. A significant consideration will be how much emphasis to give to continuing Mr. Alonso's initiatives, some of which are nationally recognized, such as school based budgeting; the embrace of a broad portfolio of schools including charters, contract and transformation schools; principal accountability; full-day pre-K funding; and a landmark teacher union contract. In the last search, we began by surveying staff, partners and stakeholders through public forums and questionnaires for their thoughts and ideas on the characteristics of the next CEO. The effort paid off by forging closer ties with the larger community and helping members develop a clearer picture of what type of person we wanted.

Additionally members will need to develop a level of trust among themselves that they can speak freely and openly. With new leadership and three new members, the board will face many challenges with little time for members to get to know each other and develop a strong working relationship. The selection of the CEO is the most important decision the board will make, and disagreement among members could be reflected in the choice. (Note: A number of applicants have been known to require unanimous board consent before accepting a position.)

Confidentiality: The board should take steps to assure candidates that their applications will be kept in confidence. During the last search, there were a number of prospects who were interested but not willing to go public. By assuring confidentiality, we were able to widen the pool and attract some highly desirable prospects who wouldn't have applied to a more public process.

When informed that Baltimore will be looking for a new CEO, AASA Executive Director Dan Domnenech commented that the board is in an unenviable position. Referring to the position of superintendent in general, he said, "It's not a job a lot of people want." The good news is that Baltimore is seen as a good place to work. The city is very supportive of its schools and CEO and has not experienced the divisiveness and bickering seen in other major cities such as Philadelphia or Chicago. The goal in the last search was to find a "transformative figure that could raise the trajectory of student achievement." Mr. Alonso helped to achieve that goal. In a place that cares as much about its children's education as Baltimore, the board and city leaders should not settle for less.

James Campbell, a former member of the Baltimore City School Board, is a senior communications manager at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. His email is

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