Still Another New Start for the City Schools


What happened?! In mid-May Mayor Schmoke personally recruited anationally renowned educator to run the city's public schools. Things suddenly looked great, after three years of disappointment and frustration. The mayor seemed to have the person to build the outstanding school system Baltimore desperately needs.

Then at the end of June, the mayor and his hand-picked school board passed over the man he had recruited and instead selected another candidate with distinctly less impressive credentials. Why?

From the beginning, Mayor Schmoke has had a rocky time

finding the right person to lead the educational reform he had promised in his 1987 campaign. By last December, the obvious inadequacy of his first selection, Richard C. Hunter, finally forced the mayor to order the school board not to renew Dr. Hunter's contract.

To his credit, the mayor himself worked hard to find the best person for the job. He earnestly pursued several individuals, each of whom would have made an excellent superintendent, but they all turned him down for personal reasons. Meanwhile, by the end of April, the school board had narrowed its choice to five "finalists." But the candidates were so unimpressive that the mayor publicly insisted that the board reopen and expand its search.

Then the mayor's efforts suddenly and spectacularly seemed to pay off. He persuaded David W. Hornbeck to talk with the school board about the job. Dr. Hornbeck possesses an abundance of qualifications for the position. He served as the principal architect of the comprehensive state-wide educational reforms adopted in Kentucky. Furthermore, he knows Maryland. For 12 years he served as state school superintendent, Maryland's top education official.

Dr. Hornbeck also has a personal commitment to Baltimore and its schools. He lives in the city. His two children attended Baltimore public schools, and his son now teaches in the system. He told the mayor that if selected, he would give it his best.

Dr. Hornbeck, however, had one obvious drawback. He is white. The school system is largely black. Afro-Americans have run it for the last 20 years.

The mayor showed political courage in an election year by publicly recruiting a white man for the job. At first, he also showed political skill in paving the way for Dr. Hornbeck's selection. He arranged for Dr. Hornbeck and the four other finalists on the school board's new list to appear before 15 community groups and organizations. Dr. Hornbeck was rated as the top choice by 9 of the 15, including several with predominantly Afro-American memberships -- the Baltimore Teachers' Union, the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD).

Yet the mayor's support for Dr. Hornbeck's candidacy began to waver. The nine endorsements had not entirely neutralized the racial issue. Some Afro-American ministers demanded that the mayor appoint an Afro-American.

Dr. Hornbeck's prior professional commitments presented an additional problem. They would have limited him to two days a week in his new job until November 1. That delay in his full-time availability troubled some board members, even though the part-time arrangement would have lasted only three months -- a seemingly minor consideration when looking for the best person for an important job with an expected tenure of five or six years.

The school board, however, apparently believed that Dr. Hornbeck had one conclusive negative -- a specific educational vision and strategy which he intended to implement if given the job. His nine-point program for educational reform emphasizes high expectations for students, tough demands on principals and teachers, decentralized school-based management and a set of rewards and punishments for individual schools based on objectively measured student performance.

In effect, Dr. Hornbeck challenged the mayor, the school board and the city to unite behind a specific, aggressive program of far-reaching educational reform -- to become a national model for urban school systems. Most of the important community organizations signed up enthusiastically.

The school board members, however, felt left out. They wanted a more important role, despite their own modest educational credentials and three years of even more modest contributions to educational progress in the city. They backed off, and the mayor eventually retreated with them. Together they had looked educational excellence squarely in the face and then turned away.

The new superintendent they have selected, Walter G. Amprey, says it will take him six months to develop a long-range plan for the schools. In the meantime, the school board has made his new job more difficult by picking his own deputies for him. Nevertheless, Dr. Amprey deserves a chance to show what he can do. He receives high marks from people who have known him since he went through the Baltimore public schools himself. They say he knows the bureaucratic system and works well with diverse constituencies. He can be tough, demanding and inspirational. If he's supported, he might just pull it off.

Baltimore desperately needs Dr. Amprey to succeed. The city cannot afford another failed school superintendency or the further frustration of radical educational reform.

Baltimore needs Mayor Schmoke to succeed too. He has missed bTC a great chance to choose an outstanding superintendent. He now bears the ultimate responsibility for Dr. Amprey's selection and for his success.

The mayor remains the key player in educational progress in the city. Four years ago he promised to rebuild the school system. As he now runs for re-election, he must set out the specific educational goals and standards by which he expects the electorate to judge his renewed efforts. Then, if he is re-elected, he and his new team must finally begin to produce.

K? Tim Baker, an attorney, writes on issues of city and state.

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