Former Baltimore schools chief living large in Florida

Sun Staff

BOCA RATON, Fla. - Carmen V. Russo has nothing to say.

From her home on the 7th hole of a posh country club, where the red brick streets are lined with palm trees and the residents are protected by guarded entrances and stone walls, the former Baltimore schools CEO remains silent about the $58 million deficit haunting the system and her own role in the crisis.

When a Sun reporter, bearing copies of the paper's coverage of the controversy, knocked on the door of her elegant, Spanish-style home several days ago, Russo came to the entrance in bare feet and with a phone to her ear. After examining the visitor's press pass, she shook her head no three times, waved the visitor away and turned to ascend a white staircase.

Reached later by phone, she said, "I'm not talking."

Her home is in the Woodfield Country Club, one of the more exclusive golf and tennis communities in Boca Raton. It's so exclusive, in fact, that there are gated communities within the gated community. Russo bought her four-bedroom, three-bath home for $491,000 in 1996, when she worked for the nearby Broward County school system.

"It's probably worth more than a million now," said Bob Mitchell, who has sold real estate for Century 21 in Boca Raton for the last 20 years. "Woodfield's excellent - it's one of the better communities around because of the country club and the location."

Russo's back yard is one of several that abut the tricky 7th hole of the18-hole, par-72 golf course. The houses are pastel-colored and the lawns are an immaculate deep green. Her neighbors include pro golfer Bernhard Langer and professional tennis player Sebastian Grosjean, currently ranked No. 9 in the world.

A new clubhouse is under construction, and a recent general manager's report in the glossy community magazine, Score Card, describes the new ballroom: "opulent and exquisitely set tables, glasses and silver sparkling in the refracted light of brilliant crystal chandeliers, classic elegance, glorious golf course and lake views, your guests gazing in wide-eyed admiration at the splendid decor."

Russo bought her yellow house with a red-barrel roof here when she was an associate superintendent of the Broward County school system. Some of Russo's former colleagues in Broward were surprised to hear of the deficit she left in Baltimore and did not even know she had returned to Florida.

"Holy cow!" said Joe Donzelli, a spokesman for the Broward system who worked for Russo, when told of the $58 million. "That's quite a lot of money to run up a deficit on."

Donzelli said it's not surprising Russo would want to spend so much money creating new programs to improve student performance. "I always found her to be very professional and very data-driven, very much wanting to know the latest and most innovative ways of instructing kids," he said.

Russo left the Broward system in 2000 to become head of the Baltimore schools. She never sold her home, though, and often returned to this sunny oasis to visit her boyfriend.

Her three years in Baltimore were uneven, marked by impressive gains in student test scores but also record deficits, the magnitude of which have only recently become known.

In refusing to speak to a reporter last week, Russo continued her public silence on the system's financial crisis. Her last comment was in November, when she said she had left in Baltimore a list of 400 to 500 people to be laid off. Those layoffs never occurred, contributing to the crisis that Russo said cannot be entirely blamed on her.

"If we are talking about blame," Russo said then, "blame has to be shared."

Russo, 68, has, by all accounts, kept a low profile since leaving Baltimore. She resigned her seat on the board of the Council of Great City Schools, as required of superintendents who leave their jobs, and has not consulted for any of the 61 large urban districts that are part of the council, said a spokesman for the group.

She gave a speech in November at the Urban Superintendents Academy in San Diego, but her name has not otherwise appeared in the papers (other than in relation to the Baltimore funding crisis). The answering machine at her home says, "This is Carmen V. Russo and Associates."

No associates were visible at the house last week, however. Russo's 3,600-square-foot home, like many in the neighborhood, has large floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room, with ferns and rocks in the front and a pool and fountain in the back. The houses on her court are clustered around a leafy square with a fountain and models of pelicans cast in pewter.

The subdivisions within the country club have names like Princeton Estates, Kensington, Mayfair and Victoria Isle. Russo's is marked by a tasteful marble sign set off by bubbling water fountains.

All residents of the neighborhood are required to join the country club, which charges a one-time membership fee of $65,000. That buys access to golf, tennis and social events. A lesser membership, which includes tennis but not golf, runs $38,000 - slightly more than the salary of a new teacher in the Baltimore schools.

It is unclear which option Russo chose.

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