Education observers were split Tuesday on whether the city's school board should launch a nationwide search to replace schools CEO Andrés Alonso or give the job of taking on the district's daunting challenges to his hand-picked successor.
Some, such as principals union president Jimmy Gittings, said they'll push for the board to name interim CEO Tisha Edwards as permanent superintendent. School officials said late Tuesday that Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff, would not have to obtain a state waiver despite lacking the teaching experience typically required by state law for the post.
"Ms. Edwards would be the best choice of anyone, nationwide or local," Gittings said. "She works closely with the unions to make sure that individuals are treated fairly and respectfully. She's come up through the system. It concerns me when we go outside the system to find individuals who come here to get a reputation on the backs of our children and then leave."
But others, such as former school board member Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, said searching far and wide for top talent can pay off.
"We were criticized then for conducting a national search, and it turned out to be the right decision," said Hettleman, who was on the board that hired Alonso. "They should be looking for another Alonso. We need somebody who has the same skills that Dr. Alonso had, meaning he or she puts the kids first. They should be not afraid to challenge the education establishment, open to doing things in a different way and smart as hell."
The school board plans to conduct a yearlong, nationwide search to replace Alonso, who announced his resignation Monday after leading the district for six years. Alonso, 55, the longest-serving city superintendent in nearly two decades, said he is leaving to spend more time with his elderly parents in New Jersey and to teach part time at Harvard University. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said she wants the board to have a permanent superintendent in place by the start of the school year in 2014.
The next permanent superintendent will face many challenges, including following through on Alonso's 10-year facilities plan, pumping more money into city schools, and attracting and retaining qualified principals, officials say.
Former state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick noted that the district opened last school year with numerous principal vacancies.
"Principals are really, in my opinion, the instructional leaders of schools; you're not going to see student performance improve dramatically without a strong principal" who attracts talented teachers, Grasmick said. "My hope is that Baltimore City could become a magnet for great principals."
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, while closing a number of schools.
City Councilman Brandon Scott said the next schools CEO will have to pick up Alonso's battle to construct 21st-century school facilities.
"They're going to have to carry out the construction plan; it will be hotly contested," Scott said. "There will be a lot of feelings and emotions that people have."
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who heads the education committee, praised Alonso for his Fair Student Funding program that gives principals autonomy over their budgets and hiring. She said Alonso's successor must continue to "squeeze the North Avenue bureaucracy and pump more money directly into the schools."
As the board conducts its search, Edwards, 42, Alonso's chief of staff since 2009, will serve as interim superintendent through the 2013-2014 school year. Maryland law requires that school superintendents have three years of teaching experience, but city officials said they do not believe the law applies to their jurisdiction. While Edwards has served as a Baltimore principal, she has never taught.
Though superintendents of most Maryland jurisdictions must adhere to state teaching requirements, Baltimore's situation is unique, said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. Baltimore's school system and its CEO position fall under a different portion of state law that does not require its school chief to have teaching experience, he said.
Last year, Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance received a waiver from the teaching requirement on the condition that he complete guest teaching hours in a middle school and high school. It was the first time the state had granted such a waiver in 20 years.
Neil E. Duke, the city school board chairman, said Edwards' one-year contract will require that she comply with the state requirements.
"Subsequent to our earlier conversation, the board was informed late afternoon by [the State Department of Education] that a waiver was not required" for Edwards to serve as interim schools CEO, said Edie House Foster, a city schools spokeswoman.
Jane Sundius, education director at the Open Society Institute–Baltimore, said she doesn't see Edwards' lack of teaching experience as a "huge concern" for an interim job.
"It would concern me, perhaps, if she was going to be the permanent candidate," Sundius said. "But for this upcoming year, she has to coordinate and manage to keep the district moving forward. It's incredibly important to have that teaching experience, but I'm not sure it's essential right now. She is definitely an educator even without that experience."
Gittings emphasized that Edwards has experience as a principal in Baltimore and as Alonso's right-hand woman for most of his tenure. She is credited with implementing the details of some of the district's high-profile changes, such as its pay-for-performance union contracts, central office reorganizations and opening new schools.
"She was a principal for four years, and she's been in the administration for six years," Gittings said. "She has my full support."
City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young also is backing Edwards.
"When you bring in a new CEO, you have to be starting all over again and we don't need to be starting all over again," Young said. "We need to be able to keep moving this system along."
A native of Meridian, Miss., Edwards began serving as Alonso's special assistant in January 2008. She started her tenure in the district as the founding principal of the Baltimore Freedom Academy High School, which the school board voted to close this year during charter contract renewals.
Before entering education, Edwards, who studied social work and law, had a career in social work and serving at-risk youth.
She has two sons, Nevan and Nicholas, whom she credits with inspiring her work in education.
"They are my inspiration," she said. "It is the love that I have for them that helps me to love 85,000 other children."
Grasmick said the school board should be "very discerning" when choosing a new CEO. She recommended that members select a "person who has in their DNA this sense of 'not businesses as usual,' [and] certainly innovation that is supported by research."
She praised Edwards as someone who is "going to stabilize the system. She is very capable."
Another former Maryland superintendent, David Hornbeck, agreed that consistency is important for the district.
"Not starting all over is very important," he said. "There's a little bit of a tendency in urban school districts for somebody to come in and go in a new direction, and it becomes a lurching apparatus. The average tenure of a big-city school superintendent is two years. If you lurch every two years, you're in trouble."
Alonso's last day will be June 30. Edwards' one-year contract with the school board has not been signed.
Baltimore Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger contributed to this article.
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