Goal of irrelevance
A year and a half into Alonso's tenure, the changes in the school bureaucracy are profound. Nearly a third of the city's principals have been replaced. More than 200 teachers who had worked for years without full certification were let go; another 250 just got warning letters. More than 300 of 1,500 jobs at North Avenue were eliminated, and some of those affected were transferred into more demanding jobs in schools for less money. Another 150 central office jobs are on the chopping block this year.

This month, Alonso is trying to fend off state budget cuts that he says would be devastating. But even if he can't do that, he says his expectations will not change.

While he hasn't really demanded 24-7 duty, he was serious about employees checking e-mail on weekends and vacations. Last spring, he sent a principal recovering from a stroke a message on a Sunday night with a 60-page draft budget document attached and a request for feedback by the next day. He didn't know of the principal's ailment, but he later said it wouldn't have mattered if he had.

As for the principal, he was honored that Alonso wanted his feedback.

Many who work for Alonso are afraid of him, and he knows it. He said he tries to communicate gratitude to his employees because "I do think that people feel vulnerable when they're with me." But when their work doesn't meet his expectations, he says so.

"I have too much respect for people to give them anything other than my best," he said. "If they give me something less than what I think the kids of Baltimore deserve, I let them know. For some people, it's devastating because they've never been in a culture where that's happened."

Susan Tibbels, principal of New Song Academy in Sandtown, marvels that she can e-mail Alonso about a problem, as she did when a teacher's hiring was held up in human resources, and he not only answers right away but gets the problem fixed.

Previous CEOs, she said, were "so much like Oz ... that the idea of even asking to speak to them would seem irrational."

Still, she added, "You can't run to the CEO every time something doesn't work."

Tibbels is enthusiastic about Alonso's plans for change but said he needs the right people to carry them out. She has been having trouble getting bills paid and supplies ordered by the central office, even though she has the money in her school budget and has submitted the necessary paperwork.

"I see it as the reverse of the old adage, the calm before the storm," Tibbels said. "It's the storm before the calm."

Within a decade, Alonso says, his goal is "to be irrelevant," to have the system humming on its own. But for as long as he's in charge, he will do some things himself. He will interview every finalist for a principal's job. For now, at least, he will review all information released by North Avenue.

Once, a reporter asked him and a staff member for the same statistic and got two different answers. "You just got a front seat to my ongoing frustration," he replied in an e-mail. "It's not my job to know more details than the people whose job it is."

In other areas, he's starting to loosen the reins. On the day before Thanksgiving, he went ahead with plans to leave for New Jersey - where he spends his rare time off visiting his family and catching up on sleep - even though there had been a near-riot the day before at Forest Park High School. He asked a handful of senior administrators to take control.

"I never would've left a year ago," he said.

Among the survivors under Alonso is Benjamin Feldman, the research and testing director and a 33-year system veteran.

On a recent day, Feldman had been awake since 4 a.m. and done an hour and a half of budget analysis before getting out of bed. He said it had been years since anyone was so interested in what he does, and it feels good to know Alonso finds his work useful - even if he does rip it apart.

"I have a feeling if Jesus brought him the Lord's Prayer, he would've had edits," Feldman said.

He said some people in the system "just don't get it. They've never taken a class this challenging."

"You know what would be really heartbreaking?" Feldman asked. "If he failed. If he can't do it, no one will ever do it. We will never have a superintendent of this caliber again."

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