Many of the 21 finalists for the new board that will preside over the impoverished Baltimore school system are themselves highly educated business owners and top executives who live in the city's best neighborhoods.

They serve on the boards of the city's most esteemed institutions and academic centers. And they move in social circles that bring them within arm's reach of power, money and influence that most city residents -- and most city schoolchildren, in particular -- can only dream about.

But does that make them a mismatch for the gritty task of rebuilding one of America's decayed urban school districts?

Architects of the reform effort say they must entrust a $700 million budget, 14,000 employees, 179 schools and 100,000 children to managers with top-flight experience.

Some parent groups, meanwhile, think the list is too exclusive, proof that the reform effort is a power-grab by the state. They want seats in the boardroom and are not satisfied that their "place" in the planned reorganization is instead on a new parent advisory board.

"They aren't really including the ordinary parent in this process," said Rita Ridgley, president of the citywide council of parent-teacher associations. "We nominated people to be on the board, but none of them made this list of finalists. So how do we get our say?"

"There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done in this system, and you need people with senior managing experience," countered Christopher Cross, president of the state school board, which chose the finalists.

"The parent-advisory committee that was created under the reform is much more the channel for communication with the average parent or the average citizen."

By June 1, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke must choose nine volunteer board members from among the 21 names culled by the state school board from more than 100 nominations.

The officials may reject the list and call for more names, but their final choices must fit the criteria outlined in the recently adopted city school reform law:

Four must have high-level managerial experience in a large company or nonprofit; three must have significant experience in education; one must be closely familiar with the needs of special education students; and at least one must be a parent.

Those specifications might help explain why these finalists were chosen. But some parents believe the state school board could have followed the rules and still come up with a list they consider less exclusive.

More than half of the 21 candidates live in areas such as Guilford, Roland Park, Mount Washington or Federal Hill -- some of the city's wealthiest.

At least 11 of the finalists serve or have served on boards for the city's private colleges, private primary and secondary schools, hospitals, nonprofit social organizations and cultural institutions such as the Lyric Opera and the Baltimore Symphony.

Only six of the 20 nominees contacted by The Sun have children in city schools, and the majority of those children attend Roland Park Elementary-Middle, one of the district's best.

According to Ed Freeman, a member of a local parent advocacy group, the candidates aren't exactly the kind of people most Baltimoreans would find living next door.

"They have assembled this list of very connected, very elite people who might serve the business interests in the state of Maryland, but won't likely serve the interests of the people of Baltimore or the children," said Freeman, secretary of Friends of Education, a group that fought for increased school funding and opposed the management reorganization.

"It's a power-grab, that's all. And it's right in line with the state's elitist approach to this city," Freeman said.

Freeman's group made five nominations for the board; only Arnita Hicks McArthur -- the current school board president -- made the finalists list. The others included local retirees, city workers and a lawyer; all but one are parents with children in city schools.

"The people we nominated met the criteria but weren't so elite," Freeman said.

In some years past, the mayor's appointed school board has been dominated by lawyers, academicians and business people. The current board includes retired and working business and government managers, a clothing store saleswoman and a community college professor.

Favoring achievers

The list of finalists for the new board includes midlevel managers and retirees, and service industry representatives. But by far, the list is weighted in favor of people who have achieved even higher rank.

Thirteen are black and eight are white; there are 12 women and nine men.

Persuading busy professionals to shoulder the taxpayer's burdens, endure public scrutiny and tackle previously intractable problems in urban education is feat enough, said supporters of the school reform effort.

It is those type of people who are on the list, according to Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat. He said the finalists should be commended for wanting to give back to the community.

"One of the intents of the consent decree and legislation is to elevate the quality of people on the board to people who have a history of achievement, and we expect their skills to be focused on the achievement of children in Baltimore," Rawlings said. "Just having someone on there who wants to improve education is insufficient: The people need to be policy-makers who are experienced in achieving outcomes."

Misguided judgment

Judging the candidates on first appearance is misguided, said Susan Goering, executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed one of the three lawsuits that resulted in the reform legislation.

"One thing that's true is that something that may seem a little different shouldn't necessarily be prejudged," Goering said. "Everyone who voted for this arrangement, I think, understands that this is a system that is in crisis, and we have to figure out a way to do things differently. If that means having more distinguished people, then I think we have to at least be open to that idea."

Some national school-reform watchers disagree with Goering and other proponents of the finalists list.

"When you define the problem around management and not achievement or parental involvement, you may get what you asked for," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, an association of the nation's largest school districts.

"Most of our [school] boards are comprised of parents, former teachers, community representatives and corporations," said Casserly, who opposed the legislation reorganizing Baltimore's schools. "Some would claim that that's part of the problem, in that you've got such disparate voices -- but you've got all the voices at the table. At least it's hard for people to feel they've been shut out of the process."

Several groups that lobbied for nominations are encouraged by the diversity and credentials of the finalists. Many of the candidates are impressed by the company they are in.

"I think a lot of people feared that this would be a totally politicized thing, but the fact that there are names that nobody recognizes shows that it isn't," said Rosetta Kerr Wilson, a veteran of state school board service and a mother of three City College high school graduates.

When finalists were revealed last week, Schmoke commented that he did not know several candidates and would have to conduct interviews.

Connection to city

It is relevant to consider their connection to city students and parents, several finalists said. "I would be afraid to have a board made up predominantly of people who have not been in city schools or are not in city schools," said Carl Stokes, a former city councilman who is on the board of the Child First Authority, which runs after-school tutoring programs.

Finalist Charles L. Maker, the current school board vice president, said it's too early to judge the candidates, but board members must be people who understand the children in the district.

"The kids in this district face tremendous barriers each day when they leave the house to come to school," he said. "If you're so far above those barriers that you can't really relate to them, then I think it will be difficult to help.

"I just hope we end up with a group that understands what these kids need."

Pub Date: 4/22/97

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