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.
Polytechnic Institute senior Reginald L. Smallwood III said Alonso left a mark on students' lives by redesigning the discipline code and reducing suspensions and dropout rates.
"I have spoken with a lot of people who have said it's better than the previous system, and it keeps students focused and motivated rather than isolated," said Smallwood, 17, who is a member of the school board.
State Superintendent Lillian Lowery commended Alonso for developing "a very diversified portfolio of choice" for families and an inclusive teacher performance evaluation process, but she said his hallmark was negotiating the 10-year school construction plan.
"His areas of strengths have been many," she said. "He brought a level of accountability there that was much needed around student performance and holding people to high expectations to ensure that everyone has our children's best interest at heart."
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, called Alonso's resignation "very sad."
"We were lucky to have him for six years. He'll be missed," Embry said. "By almost every objective measure, the school system is better off today than when he was hired. He's always been open to other people's ideas, non-dogmatic and evidence-based. It's hard for me to imagine a better superintendent."
Alonso will finish the school year and then move back to Weehawken, N.J., and begin a commute to the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has been named a professor of practice — a title and position the school extends to those of national or international distinction "who have had a major beneficial impact on education practice or policy," according to the school system.
Alonso said previously that he'd hoped to stay in the district for 10 years. He told The Baltimore Sun at the outset of his tenure that if at any point he was prevented from making decisions that he believes are in kids' best interests, he would leave.
When he signed a new $260,000, four-year contract in July 2011, Alonso said his ability to be effective would determine how long he would stay in the city.
"Superintendents have short tenures," Alonso said at the time. "If I wanted to be a superintendent that lasts 10 years, then it'd be easy for me. That's not what I want to be.
"I want to last 10 years by doing what I think is right for schools and communities for as long as schools and communities agree that I'm the right person to do it, and that the direction I'm taking the district is the right one."
But as the schools chief renewed his commitment that year, the district started to stumble.
Test scores stalled, and a series of cheating scandals — found by the state to have taken place during the year the district's progress was most celebrated — cast a cloud over the success story.
Unprecedented turnover and pressure on school leaders soured Alonso's relationship with the city's principals union, which also challenged his decision to hold principals responsible for suspected cheating and which denounced the evidence Alonso had used to build some of the cases.
And in the past year, the school system has been embroiled in controversy over imprudent spending and financial mismanagement.
Among the issues: the system had paid $14 million in overtime over several years, with the top earner being Alonso's driver; credit card records showed employees at school headquarters had spent $500,000 with virtually no oversight; and the head of the IT department spent $250,000 to renovate his suite.
In addition, a state audit released late last year faulted the district for failing to collect millions of dollars in debt, overpaying dozens of employees in salaries and benefits, and paying $2.8 million in overtime without substantiating hours.
Alonso denied that any challenges affected his decision to resign.
"The greater the challenges, the greater my commitment to stay in the district," he said. "I love that kind of adrenaline."
The facilities plan — which will build 15 new schools and renovate others — will be the bookend of the legacy of Alonso, whose earlier focus had been on leaving a formative mark on the culture of the district and solidifying its operations.
In 2008, Alonso introduced an initiative called "Fair Student Funding," which funded schools based on enrollment numbers and gave principals the autonomy to formulate their budgets around their priorities.
That year, the schools chief also sought to bring back dropouts, urging all high schools to place at least one phone call to students who had dropped out of school and visit their homes. By 2012, Alonso had cut the district's dropout rate in half.
In 2009, the district marked historic gains on state tests; emerged from "corrective action," in which the state was involved in the school system's governance because of poor test scores; and was celebrated by U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
However, Alonso would later say cheating on test scores had taken place at the school Duncan visited, Abbottston Elementary. Flaws in the school system's cheating investigation, found by independent hearing officers, led to a reversal of his decision to fire the school's principal.
In 2009, Alonso's administration made its first public misstep, offering then-school board President Brian Morris a $175,000-a-year job as his deputy, only to find that he had a long history of financial and legal problems and hadn't finished his bachelor's degree at University of Maryland as he had claimed.
Alonso expanded school choice in 2010 to include middle and high school programs. By that year, the district had more than 30 charter schools and more than one dozen transformation programs that combine middle and high schools and include a college and/or career prep focus.
Alonso reached a landmark deal in October 2010 with the Baltimore Teachers Union that did away with traditional pay increases, and tied promotions and raises to student performance. The pact marked a stark contrast to October 2007, when teachers cast a vote of "no confidence" and picketed at headquarters to overthrow the schools chief and the school board when they came to an impasse on planning time during contract negotiations.
"We didn't always see eye-to-eye on all the issues, but we always managed to find a way to work together and find a solution that would best fit our teachers ... and students," Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said in a statement. "The relationship between the BTU and management under Dr. Alonso should serve as an example of how collaboration works and how it can benefit all parties involved."
Melanie Hood-Wilson, chairwoman of the district's Parent and Community Advisory Board, said Alonso brought "tremendously positive change to our school system."
"While things are imperfect, the improvement has been substantial during his tenure as CEO," Hood-Wilson said in a statement. "He was unafraid to dismantle large portions of a very broken school system and build something that far better meets the needs of our kids."
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.
• City schools CEO Andres Alonso will step down June 30.
• Alonso's current chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, will take over as interim CEO on July 1. She will be the interim CEO through the 2013-2014 school year.
• The city school board, whose members are jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor, will conduct an "exhaustive" national search for a new city schools CEO.