School CEO leaving

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland will step down July 1, ending a turbulent three-year stint punctuated by a crippling financial crisis, increased state oversight and political bickering between Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

A source close to the school system said last night that Copeland's interim replacement will be Charlene Cooper Boston, superintendent of Wicomico County schools and a former city schools administrator.

Rumors of Copeland's departure have been swirling for weeks, as members of the school board grew increasingly frustrated with her management, which some criticized as weak. For days, Copeland insisted that she was not about to resign. Yesterday, school system officials said she and the school board had reached a mutual decision that it's time for her to leave.

In a carefully worded announcement, officials outlined Copeland's accomplishments but said nothing about the reason for her departure. Neither Copeland nor school board Chairman Brian D. Morris would comment beyond prepared remarks in the announcement, where they said they were proud of the work they did together.

Ehrlich and the campaign of Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, O'Malley's opponent in the Democratic gubernatorial primary, both issued statements portraying Copeland's departure as indicative of a school system in turmoil. The governor said he is "disappointed that Baltimore City's leadership continues to fail its students."

But O'Malley said Copeland did "a terrific job" during challenging times.

"The job of being a big city school superintendent is tough enough," he said in an interview last night. "But she served at a time where our school system was turned into a political punching bag in a very unkind, unfair way, and she continued to persevere. ... I'm not sure that anyone else could have done a better job given the challenges that we faced."

Those challenges included an order last summer by a federal judge for the state to send managers to oversee all school system departments affecting special education, and a state attempt in March to take over 11 low-performing schools. In recent weeks, the state prosecutor's office began investigating allegations of financial misconduct among Copeland's senior staff, and a top aide was fired.

At least temporarily, Copeland will be replaced by Boston, who spent more than 30 years as a teacher and administrator in city schools. When she left four years ago to become the superintendent of Wicomico County schools, Boston was a top administrator overseeing a group of elementary and new schools. She was mentioned as a candidate for the CEO's job in 2003, along with Copeland.

O'Malley said he remembers Boston as "a very capable administrator." She could not be reached for comment.

Copeland, 56, told her staff of her intention to leave at a tearful meeting yesterday afternoon. The decision comes 10 months after the school board gave the chief executive officer a hefty raise and renewed her contract through 2008. Her compensation package for the 2005-2006 school year was worth at least $272,700.

System officials would not release the terms of Copeland's departure, but language in her contract indicates that she will be paid at least $100,000.

The school board met yesterday in a closed-door session before the announcement. Except for a posting inside school system headquarters, there was no advance public notice of the meeting, as legally required and despite a standing request from The Sun for such notice.

Copeland is the system's fourth chief executive officer since 1997, when the state and city entered into a partnership to run Baltimore's public schools. The governor and the mayor jointly appoint a school board, which hires and fires the CEO.

The board has chosen vastly different personalities for the top job. It first brought in Robert E. Schiller, who had led a number of school districts around the nation, while it chose a permanent CEO. Then Robert Booker, a Californian who had worked in the Los Angeles school district, was hired for his financial background. He was followed by Carmen V. Russo, a charismatic Floridian, whose strength was in high school and academic reform. She began the breakup of large high schools with $20 million in foundation support, but the reforms were costly.

Under Russo's watch, the system's deficit increased almost every year. The board gave her a critical annual review, and she left a year before her four-year contract was up.

In 2003, the board turned to Copeland, a quiet, less flashy personality, who had been the runner-up in the selection process the year Russo was chosen. Copeland was local and had experience working in school systems, foundations and with the Greater Baltimore Committee.

Yesterday's announcement raised concerns among community leaders and activists about high turnover at the helm of Maryland's lowest-performing and most closely watched school system, which enrolls 85,000 students.

"We have been through Russo. We went through Bonnie. Who is next?" said Larry Gaines, a longtime parent advocate. "They just come and go. It is musical chairs. We need stability."

Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, said he believes Copeland has much to be proud of in her tenure, including yearly progress on test scores, although incremental. "I think it is very unfortunate for Baltimore City public schools to loose a talented and dedicated professional," he said.

Around the country, a three-year tenure is about average for an urban school superintendent. The Council of the Great City Schools, which includes 65 school systems, recently released a survey showing the average tenure of an urban superintendent is 3.1 years, up from 2.8 years in 2003 and a low of 2.3 years in 1999.

Michael Casserly, executive director of the council, said urban superintendents must contend with "a stew of conflicting interests," from corporations to unions to fractured neighborhoods.

"Balancing all of these interests and needs against a backdrop of very stiff demands for raising student achievement makes this one of the most difficult jobs in the country," Casserly said.

Nearly immediately after being named the interim CEO in July 2003, Copeland confronted a major problem: a $58 million deficit that left the system near insolvency.

Copeland is credited with helping the system get its financial house in order: When a new fiscal year starts July 1, it is expected to be deficit-free for the first time in seven years.

She has also presided over academic gains in the city's elementary schools. Last week the system released results of a national standardized test given to first- and second-graders, showing improved performance. State test scores for older students, which will be used to gauge the system's compliance with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, are to be released today.

But from the beginning, Copeland has been criticized as a weak leader, and many say she is too nice for such a tough job. During her tenure, the system filled several key positions with former City Hall employees, generally young and with degrees from the nation's top universities but lacking experience in education. Those hires created friction with longtime system employees.

Copeland also hired a number of people from the Fund for Educational Excellence, where she served as executive director prior to coming to the school system. One was Deputy Chief Academic Officer Frank DeStefano. The Sun reported last month that Copeland passed up a qualified internal candidate to oversee the city's high schools in favor of DeStefano, who had resigned from a superintendency in Brooklyn, N.Y., schools in 2001 amid allegations of misspending and a dictatorial leadership style.

Over the past month, Copeland's administration has been embroiled in a controversy involving a fishing trip taken by senior staff. Chief Operating Officer Eric Letsinger was fired as the system conducted an internal investigation into the trip and allegations of misconduct against some of Copeland's top deputies.

Letsinger paid for the $1,600 fishing trip himself, but there were questions about whether he had intended to use system funds before details of the trip were made public on the radio. Letsinger has said he did not consult Copeland in advance of the trip, taken by about 10 system and city employees.

As city and state officials have sparred for control over Baltimore's schools, Copeland has allied herself in recent years with O'Malley. They stood together this spring to fight the state Education Department when it ordered outside takeovers of 11 schools. The General Assembly responded by passing emergency legislation delaying the takeovers for a year.

In terms of academic reforms, Copeland has continued the sweeping breakup of the city's large neighborhood high schools into smaller, more personalized environments. She was preparing to tackle the issue of low performance in middle schools, largely by diverting thousands of middle school pupils to schools serving pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.

Copeland's tenure

July 2003 --Copeland replaces Carmen V. Russo as interim chief executive officer.

October 2003 --The scope of the financial crisis in the city schools starts to become apparent, and in November, Copeland and the school board announce the layoffs of 1,000 employees, the largest staff reduction in 20 years.

March 2004 --After political maneuvering between the city and state officials, Mayor Martin O'Malley lends the schools $42 million weeks before the system would have had to stop issuing paychecks to teachers.

August 2005 --U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis authorizes state education officials to send managers into the city schools to oversee eight school system departments that affect special education, including finance, instruction and human resources.

February 2006 --Copeland decides to drop a new language arts curriculum for middle schools after it is criticized for failing to prepare students for state tests and for de-emphasizing basic skills.

March 2006 --State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and the State Board of Education announce that they will take control of four failing high schools and require the city to hand over seven middle schools to a third party to operate.

April 2006 --The Maryland General Assembly votes to impose a moratorium on the outside takeover.

May 2006 --The school system, now solvent, pays back the final installment of the city loan.

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