Praising his efforts to bring stability to an often-troubled system, the Baltimore school board is negotiating a new three-year contract with CEO Andrés Alonso, just days after he became the longest-serving superintendent in the city in more than a decade.
The move comes nearly a year before Alonso's current four-year contract expires and as education reform advocates call for the superintendent to shift his focus from his early work of overhauling the school system's management to strengthening teaching and learning in the classroom.
Baltimore school board President Neil Duke said contract negotiations are under way to retain Alonso, through at least 2014.
Alonso, who as of July 2 became the longest-serving superintendent since Richard Hunter ended a six-year tenure in 1994, said he does not know when exactly he will sign the contract. But he said that for now, "I'm not going anywhere."
Alonso said he is contacted by head hunters from other districts "weekly."
Duke said the board believes that Alonso has brought steadiness to the school system and the CEO position, which due to its turnover had become a mockery in some education circles. The city has had seven school CEOs, including Alonso, since Hunter left.
"There were folks of the mentality in the district that he wasn't going to last very long, because no one else really did," Duke said. "But he's done an outstanding job and brought stability to the district, and stability is a common denominator in a lot of successful districts."
Duke says that though Alonso's contract doesn't end until June 30, 2011, "We don't see the need to wait until next year for a decision that's fairly obvious."
Some education experts in the city agree that it makes sense to re-sign Alonso now.
"I think the city is unbelievably lucky to have him and even luckier that he is willing to stay," said Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation.
Duke said the board wants to renew Alonso's contract at about the same salary.
Alonso, 53, signed his first contract with city schools for $230,000 and a yearly increase of $10,000, bringing his current salary to $260,000. As of last year, he was the fifth-highest-paid superintendent in the state. His contract also allows up to $30,000 in performance-based bonuses and school-related travel expenses.
Duke said the board is scrutinizing in particular how to measure Alonso's performance in the new contract.
"The clarity of purpose and mission has been the singular greatest accomplishment," Duke said. "Originally, we were like, 'Where are we going?' Now, we know where we're going and we have to track how to get there."
In a recent interview, Alonso reflected on his past and future tenure in the city, pointing to an illustration he received as a birthday present from his staff in June.
A caricature on the wall of his office shows Alonso in a raft full of his executive staff, navigating — with animation and a fearless stance — a temperamental stream full of boulders that display the names of recent controversies in city schools, such as "test tampering" and "bullying."
"The work is experienced as if you're in an ocean," Alonso said, chuckling. "There's a lot of waves on the surface, but I think our work has been about changing what's happening about the bottom of the ocean."
The CEO burst onto the Baltimore scene in 2007 as a self-described "reform-minded" superintendent, preaching accountability and autonomy as the gospel for how the system operates and how to produce the best outcomes for student achievement. He called for students to have equal and adequate financial investments under a program called "Fair Student Funding" and more school choices under "Expanding Great Options," which he said are still works in progress.
"We are constantly an organization that is reflecting on how it's doing its job, what we missed, what got dropped," he said.
It is in part, he said, those principles that have contributed to the school system's achieving the lowest dropout record in history last year at 6.2 percent.
There have been modest gains in student achievement, but a slow but steady increase in the school system's graduation rate, which hit 62.7 percent at the end of the 2009 school year. It was a slight increase from 62.6 percent in 2008, and the school system's highest graduation rate since the state began recording it in 1996.
Arguably, Alonso's most recognizable reforms have come by way of cutting the layers of bureaucracy, reducing the school system's central office by nearly 32 percent in the past three years, and shifting bodies, resources and responsibilities to principals to manage their schools, including their own budgets.
But there have been casualties, observers say.
In the three years of Alonso's tenure, roughly 80 principals have left the system, said administrators union President Jimmy Gittings. He said the number is "devastating" because of the loss of institutional knowledge. The departures or transfers have been a result of the handful of low-performing schools that Alonso has ordered closed, Gittings said, and the new accountability that has come with principal autonomy.
"I support that principals should have full autonomy of their schools, but in doing that, the system needs to provide the resources that are needed for a principal to run his/her school properly," he said.
Others say that they would like to see Alonso shift his attention to classroom instruction and curriculum, a point the superintendent promises will become the focus of intensive work in the coming months as the state looks to adopt new common core standards for school curriculum.
"Generally, Dr. Alonso has courageously and effectively destroyed an old, dysfunctional system and begun to put into place the elements of an effective system," said Matthew Joseph, executive director for the Advocates for Children and Youth, which examines the city's education policies and progress.
"But to sustain and accelerate the progress, he needs to focus exclusively on instruction in the classroom."
Other education reform advocates say that Alonso should also focus on the quality of teachers who will be implementing new curriculum initiatives. A report released by the National Council on Teacher Quality shows that Baltimore has work to do in the area of properly evaluating the effectiveness of city teachers.
"I hope that he will want to address what happens in the school level in the classroom to make sure that every teacher is effective, that classes are engaging for the students," said Bebe Verdery, director of ACLU of Maryland's Education Reform Project.
Alonso's work to date, particularly in the area of transforming the school system's mentality, has resonated with parents, he said.
Chicquita Crawford, a parent advocate for the city schools' parent and community advisory board, said that while she hasn't agreed with every position the CEO has taken in the past three years, she's glad he's engaged.
"I don't even know who the last CEO was, and whoever it was didn't come to the public and let them know they were there for us," she said. "You can be the best CEO in the world, but if you're not connecting with the people, then you're not doing your job."
Alonso said that it won't be job approval but effectiveness that will determine how long he will stay in the city.
"Superintendents have short tenures," Alonso said. "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. That's the covenant for me."
Baltimore City school CEOs since 1988
Richard Hunter: 1988-1994
Walter Amprey: 1994-1997
Robert Schiller: 1997-1998
Robert Booker: 1998-2000
Carmen V. Russo: 2000-2003
Bonnie S. Copeland: 2003-2006
Charlene C. Boston: 2006-2007
Andrés Alonso: 2007-present