Baltimore City schools chief Carmen V. Russo - credited by many for beginning a much-lauded school reform effort, and criticized by others for allowing a multimillion-dollar budget deficit - will step down from the system's top job June 30, with one year left on her four-year contract.
Russo, 67, announced yesterday that she has accepted a position with a nonprofit foundation. She would not disclose the name of the foundation or its location, but a school official said the position would allow Russo to live in her adopted home state of Florida.
Meanwhile, the head of the city's nine-member Board of School Commissioners said the panel will begin "aggressively searching" for someone to take over Russo's position by July 1.
Calling herself a "change agent," Russo said yesterday that she believed she had accomplished what she was hired in 2000 to do: set the struggling 96,000-student city school district on a road toward improvement.
"I just thought it was a good time" to leave, Russo said yesterday from her office at school district headquarters on North Avenue. "I was hired to do a lot of reform work, and I think we've done a lot of good work. The goal is really to institutionalize all the processes, and I think I've done that. Whether I'm sitting in that chair or not, people can move forward."
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said Russo's positive contributions - which include raising test scores, restructuring high schools and securing a $20 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and nine local charitable organizations - has given the next city school leader a solid base to build on.
But she said she worries that Russo might be leaving too soon.
"Longevity is always an issue," Grasmick said. "You really can't institutionalize things unless you're there long enough to be able to do that. But I think the stage has been set in a lot of ways for someone else to come in."
Russo's announcement comes at a time when impressive school reform efforts have been largely overshadowed by recent missteps and problems.
Though test scores climbed in many elementary schools during Russo's tenure, a tough promotion policy was instituted, grant funding and graduation rates increased, and several large, low-performing high schools were broken up into smaller, more manageable "learning communities," Russo's last year has been marred by one crisis after another:
The system was forced to lay off temporary employees just before Christmas because of a budget deficit that would eventually approach $31 million and was largely caused by miscalculations and overspending for programs and initiatives.
A federal judge threatened to jail Russo, top school administrators and school board members for not providing an adequate computer tracking system for the district's special education students.
The city's health commissioner fined 41 schools for failing to protect students from lead-contaminated drinking water, a decade after water fountains were ordered permanently shut off.
Russo said such setbacks did not influence her decision to leave.
"There are always problems in public education," Russo said. "And they're cyclical. We'll be having the same kinds of conversations for the next three years."
School board members said yesterday that Russo's short time in Baltimore was generally well-regarded.
"There were some issues that created some concern," said the school board's chairwoman, Patricia L. Welch. "But we had the sense that Carmen was moving in the right direction."
Welch said board members will begin an internal search for a new leader to continue the path of reform and academic improvement.
There are superintendent openings in other large districts, including Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Ala., and, locally, Prince George's County - a district of similar size and challenges. But Baltimore's CEO post could be as attractive a job as any in those other districts, said Henry Duvall, spokesman for the Council of the Great City Schools.
Duvall says Russo is considered a solid administrator by her peers elsewhere and is known for her high school redesign program.
"I would think that Baltimore would be an attractive place to work because of what Carmen was able to do there," Duvall said.
School board member Sam Stringfield said Russo should be proud of the things she has accomplished in more than 2 1/2 years, including transforming troubled high schools, such as Northern and Southern, into cleaner, safer, more focused environments.
"She has made very serious improvements to Baltimore City education," Stringfield said.
Mayor Martin O'Malley said it was only a matter of time before Russo found another opportunity.
"You can only keep talented people in an administration for so long," O'Malley said. "Carmen Russo did some good things while she was here. She got arts and music back in the classroom. We have kids achieving at higher and higher levels. We have an ambitious high school reform effort under way ... and she's got to do what she's got to do."
But others said Russo is jumping ship at a time when she is most needed.
"I just long for some consistency in the administration of Baltimore City Public Schools," said state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city's Senate delegation. "We've had more superintendents the last 10 years than Elizabeth Taylor had husbands. It just doesn't send a good signal to the citizens of Baltimore."
School activists agreed.
"I think with the departure of Ms. Russo, there's a huge void at probably one of the most critical junctures," said Christopher N. Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "When you look at student achievement overall, it definitely has gone up. ... However, the school system is so far from being an adequate school system. We don't know, and we won't know for a while, if these results were short-term or long-term changes.
"It takes more than three years to see if your leadership has been effective."
Kalman R. Hettleman, an education consultant and former city school board member, said Russo never made a real commitment to Baltimore. For example, earlier in the school year, it became widely known that Russo was a finalist for a job in Florida.
"I think it's a sad story of missed opportunities for her and the school system," Hettleman said. "She has great strengths. She's willing to make tough decisions, but she never built any trust with the community or even the people in the school system. She gave the appearance that she really was here as a steppingstone.
"You can't be a change agent for a system as large and as complex as an urban school system and not be here to see that that progress is, in fact, sustained."
Michael Hamilton, president of the city's Council of PTAs, said there is "tremendous concern" among PTA members about the timing of Russo's departure.
"Our children can't afford another interruption in what we perceive as progress," he said. "Yes, it's been limited progress, but there has been progress."
City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said he felt that Russo lacked good management skills as evidenced by the recent budget problems and the lead-contaminated drinking water in school fountains. But he said the charge is to find someone to take over where Russo left off.
"I think more importantly we have to keep moving forward," he said. "Our emphasis has to be on pressing the mayor and the governor to find the best person available to give our students the quality they deserve."
Sun staff writers Stephanie Desmon, Reginald Fields, Tom Pelton and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.