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Renewing Mr. Alonso's contract

Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso may have one of the toughest jobs in Maryland – steering a big urban school system with a large proportion of disadvantaged minority youths back to health after years of inadequate funding and neglect. Nor is it a post known for long-term job security; having served three years at the helm, Mr. Alonso already has surpassed most of his recent predecessors in terms of longevity. At the same time, he has presided over a major reorganization of the system and overseen a steady rise in test scores.

So it's no surprise that the Baltimore school board, which is currently negotiating a renewal of Mr. Alonso's contract, wants to keep him in place after his current four-year agreement with the city ends next year. The feeling is apparently mutual: Mr. Alonso has said on numerous occasions that he envisions turning the city's troubled schools around will take at least 10 years, and that's he's committed to seeing the job through.

Mr. Alonso will be well-rewarded for his efforts. This year his base salary was $260,000, and his contract also contains provisions for him to receive up to $30,000 in performance bonuses every year. Last year he earned $250,000 in salary and received $29,000 in bonuses. Mr. Alonso's compensation makes him one of the highest-paid schools chiefs in Maryland, second only to Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston, who earned slightly more than $300,000 this year.

Compared to what most city schoolteachers and administrators earn, that's a lot of money even when you take into account the enormous responsibility involved in running a $1.1 billion school system responsible for thousands of employees and more than 80,000 children. On the basis of what he's accomplished so far, however, Mr. Alonso clearly seems to be earning his pay. Whether his new contract should contain a significant salary increase, however, is another matter. We hope the board will proceed cautiously in this regard — recognizing that Mr. Alonso is being courted by other districts but keeping in mind that this is a time of austerity for most employees of the Baltimore City Public Schools.

The challenges that lie ahead are, if anything, even greater than those Mr. Alonso has dealt with up to this point. Most of the reforms he has introduced so far have been at the macro level of system-wide school management. He has made significant progress by closing failing schools and replacing them with new transformation and charter schools that better serve students' individual interests and needs.

He's made giving principals more authority over their schools' budgets and curriculum a centerpiece of his strategy to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of school operations, while insisting on holding teachers and administrators accountable for results. And he has worked hard to inculcate a culture of excellence and raise expectations regarding what students can achieve in a system that had long been demoralized by failure.

But in order to bring Baltimore's schools to the next level, one that provides a truly firm foundation for learning that will prepare students for college and the work world, Mr. Alonso will have to dramatically improve the quality of instruction at the micro level of individual classrooms, teachers and their pupils.

That's where the rubber meets the road in any educational setting, and the city is still not moving fast enough to provide professional development for teachers, research-based instructional strategies in the classroom, or tutoring programs, summer school and other proven interventions that target the most at-risk students before they start falling behind. Too many Baltimore youngsters still aren't achieving at a level adequate to ensure success in life.

Mr. Alonso is right when he says it may take a decade to put all the pieces in place needed to transform the schools. It's a task that will require a consistently high level of leadership and an unswerving dedication to the idea that all children are capable of fulfilling their potential. And there are no short cuts. School reform is only real when the improvements work their way down to the level of the individual classroom where learning actually takes place, and it's got to be achieved one classroom at a time.

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