The announcement that Baltimore schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland is stepping down by mutual agreement with the Board of School Commissioners presents the school system with a tremendous challenge - and an unexpected opportunity.
Ms. Copeland deserves credit for helping to turn around the city school system's finances and continuing to improve its academic standing. While those are important accomplishments, she was constantly embattled - from the fiscal nightmare and bureaucratic shambles that she inherited to a toxic political climate that has dogged her tenure, including threats by the state's Department of Education to step in and take responsibility for some schools. Those all-too-common issues among urban school superintendents will likely face the next CEO, but the board should move with dispatch to select a successor who can demonstrate strong leadership while continuing to move the system forward.
When Ms. Copeland took over in 2003, the school system faced a deficit that grew to $58 million. The financial crisis - caused in part by poor management by top administrators and poor oversight by the school board - became a political football between the state and the city over a bailout. Ultimately, the city stepped up and lent the system $42 million, which was paid back just last month. Repayment of the loan and an infusion of Thornton plan money have left the system deficit-free for the first time in seven years. That City Hall involvement gives Mayor Martin O'Malley an opening - even an obligation - to speak up for all the city's residents during the search for a successor.
At the same time, Baltimore students have shown steady, if slow, improvement in state assessments and other tests. High school graduation rates have started to inch upward, and elementary school students have shown impressive gains in reading and math. Ms. Copeland recently launched some much-needed reforms in middle schools, which have persistently lagged in academic improvement, but it will take some time for those reforms to show results.
Despite some successes, Ms. Copeland was undermined, almost daily, by a number of issues, including a relationship with the state Education Department that teetered between cooperation and meddling; a federal judge's decision to give the state oversight control of the schools' special-education operations; academic officers who chose a bad middle school language arts curriculum; and her own inability to show consistently strong leadership and maintain total confidence of the commissioners who hired her. Two years ago, the school board failed to adequately oversee a system that almost fell into financial ruin; today's board must show that it can choose - and properly support - a worthy successor.