Most Marylanders would have a hard time identifying Andres Alonso. An Orioles outfielder? An O’Malley cabinet secretary? The name sounds familiar, is he a businessman? A talk show host? Is he riding a horse in the Preakness?
No, Alonso’s claim to fame is that he has the toughest job in Maryland — superintendent of Baltimore City public schools. A job so tough that city officials changed it from “superintendent” to “CEO,” just like they upgraded “garbage man” to “waste management engineer.”
Alonso took over BCPS six years ago after a nationwide search lured the 49-year-old, Harvard-educated, Cuban-American away from New York City, where he was the hotshot deputy chancellor of schools. Baltimore wanted, and desperately needed, a radical change agent to wage a frontal assault on BCPS’ dismal culture of mediocrity and failure.
And that’s exactly what Alonso did: He eliminated one third of BCPS’ headquarters staff, shifting the savings to classrooms; he reorganized management, empowering principals to run (and be accountable for) their schools; he reduced suspensions and increased graduation rates; he cleaned up some longstanding lawsuits; he increased the number of charter schools, and his relentless drive saw dramatic test score gains.
And, as if his job wasn’t hard enough, Alonso not only answered to the city school board, he also answered to state lawmakers in Annapolis who pay 80 percent of the city’s school budget.
Somehow Alonso secured enough state money to finance a new city teachers’ contract that trades job security for bonuses based on classroom performance, a national model. And, this year, Alonso and city lawmakers talked the state legislature into guaranteeing $20 million a year for the next 30 years to finance a $1 billion city school construction program. This was an amazing feat because it grants the city a preferred position in the annual scramble for school construction money, and because, once again, it rewards the city for longstanding malfeasance.
While other Maryland school systems bit the bullet and closed underused schools, Baltimore operated half-empty schools for decades despite the financial drain. Today, Baltimore houses 84,000 students in 195 schools, compared to Montgomery’s 146,000 students in 209 schools. Now, thanks to the $1 billion construction deal, Alonso can buy peace with the neighborhoods that oppose closings and mergers.
Except Andres Alonso is quitting. Last week he announced his departure in the midst of his new four-year contract. It’s a shocking and tragic setback for the city’s school reform effort.
“As important as what he did is how he has done it,” said former Baltimore school board member Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman. “For one thing, he changed the system’s culture to put kids first and to accept no excuses. That might seem unexceptional, but the education establishment nationally resists reforms that raise expectations and enhance accountability.”
Alonso’s stated reason for leaving is to care for his elderly parents in New Jersey and to accept a Harvard teaching job. But, when discussing his successor, he recommended someone who was good “at withstanding the heat.” And, after six years, it looks like Alonso grew tired of withstanding the heat.
For each of his successes, Alonso suffered a setback. BCPS’ test scores triumph was undercut by cheating scandals — not the students, the administrators. And Baltimore still has the state’s worst scores, worst truancy and worst graduation rates.
And, despite his management reforms, Alonso was constantly embarrassed by BCPS spending scandals, hiring scandals and personnel scandals. In the end, one man couldn’t turn around BCPS’ entrenched white collar welfare system of corrupt, dead-wood employees.
An old adage says, “A school is only as good as the kids who walk through its front door every morning.” Unfortunately, the kids who walk through BCPS’ front doors come from neighborhoods torn by poverty, crime, drugs and violence, and from single-parent families without parental pressure or peer pressure to succeed in school.
Alonso’s departure puts Baltimore at a critical crossroads as it chooses his successor. It must resist the temptation to backslide, to pick someone who makes the unions, the parents and the politicians happy by taking a rest from reform, by maintaining the status quo and by not rocking the boat.
That’s what happened in Washington, where Mayor Adrian Fenty courageously tackled the city’s dysfunctional schools by appointing Michelle Rhee, another change agent, as superintendent.
When Rhee blew up a system that badly needed blowing up, city voters recoiled and defeated Fenty in the next election. Apparently, returning to the status quo — social promotions producing graduates who can’t read their diplomas — was preferable to the pain of reform. If Baltimore follows suit, the city’s revival — no, its survival — is doomed.
This moment is so important that state lawmakers ought not let the city school board select the new school CEO alone without state oversight and guidance. If the state is going to finance the city’s schools, it ought to have a major say in its management.
For decades, state lawmakers have dumped mountains of state taxpayers’ money into city schools. Now, instead of taking the easy way out, the state should take responsibility for how those billions are spent.
Blair Lee is chairman of the board of Lee Development Group in Silver Spring and a regular commentator for WBAL radio. His column appears Fridays in the Business Gazette. His past columns are available at www.gazette.net/blairlee. His email address is email@example.com.