Community groups find range of styles in school contenders


They came. They saw.

They decided that the school board and the mayor came up with a pretty good menu of choices for the city's next school superintendent after all.

"They" are 21 groups with a stake in Baltimore's schools. For two days, ending yesterday, they gathered at the New Community College of Baltimore's Liberty campus to interview the five finalists.

"You really provided us with a range of visions and styles and even ability to listen to questions," Delores G. Kelley, a Coppin State College professor and Baltimore delegate to the General Assembly, told board members when the sessions ended yesterday. "We had people ranging from 'You form your consensus, and we'll just follow you' to people advocating radical discontinuity with what we've had, and some in between."

Gary Rodwell, an organizer with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, put it this way: "Contrary to some reports we heard, we thought we saw a strong list of candidates."

Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's three-year term ends July 31, and the school board hopes to select his successor by mid-July. Each group was urged to make a recommendation or provide some kind of feedback to the board by Tuesday.

Though many groups would not comment on who most impressed them, those that would seemed to favor former state school Superintendent David W. Hornbeck; Lillian Gonzalez, an assistant superintendent in District of Columbia schools, and Walter G. Amprey, an associate superintendent in Baltimore County schools.

Finalists Patsy Baker Blackshear, an associate superintendent in Baltimore schools and Charles M. Bernardo, a former Montgomery County superintendent, had their admirers as well.

But Dr. Bernardo made the wrong kind of strong impression on Susan Leviton, president of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth.

"His ponderous pontification could make one puke," Ms. Leviton said. She added: "What scared me was that whatever anybody said, he agreed with."

Dr. Gonzalez, who is the lowest-ranking administrator in the bunch and was a dark horse until these sessions, won some converts.

"I guess I'm really looking to her as a people person and a person who is really sensitive to the system," said the Rev. William Johnson of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

"She came with a vision, and in her case it seemed to be grounded more in political reality, in what can happen," said Ms. Kelley. She said Mr. Hornbeck's plans are not realistic and would run into trouble with the state Legislature. "I don't think he's political enough," she said. "I think he's seen as such a visionary that it's not reality-based."

Almost everyone was looking for someone who can survive politically in this city. For some, that meant giving more emphasis to Dr. Amprey and Mr. Hornbeck, who were invited to apply by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. Others looked for signs of practical know-how.

"I think that's the most difficult part of this process," said Jerry Baum of the Fund for Educational Excellence.

"You can listen to people and you can get their ideas, but how they can ultimately translate that once they get in office is crucially important and the hardest thing to get out of this."

Arthur Boyd of the Metropolitan Education Coalition said each candidate had something to offer. "Bernardo is somebody who has the maturity that comes from being tested by failure and having the personal insights from that. Gonzalez has a real feel, not just mouthing the words but a real feel for the process of community involvement.

"Blackshear understands the workings of the bureaucracy and knows how to get in there and tinker. Amprey is someone who would make the person on the row-house stoops say, 'Gee, this idea of education is accessible to me. . . . I can relate to it.' Hornbeck has a vision tied to current assessments of what needs to be done that can grab people's interest.

Mr. Boyd said, "The ideal candidate would have all of those qualities, and none of them that we saw had all of them."

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