Donald Fry: Amid the turmoil, Copeland moved schools toward stability, accountability

Statement by Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee on the Resignation of Dr. Bonnie S. Copeland

Yesterday’s resignation of Baltimore City Public School System Chief Executive Officer Dr. Bonnie S. Copeland sends yet another jolt to the City’s public school system. Constant turnover of top management has plagued the system for decades and the resignation of Dr. Copeland, a talented and dedicated professional, adds one more chapter to this history.

Under Dr. Copeland’s leadership, the system eliminated a $58 million deficit in less than three years, a testament to her strong grasp of the problem and her will to solve it. During her tenure, city public schools have seen national assessment scores rise and graduation rates increase to the highest rate in ten years. Dr. Copeland instituted high school reform and brought in foundation and private funds from throughout the country for the benefit of Baltimore City’s children, who were always her primary focus. Dr. Copeland has consistently been willing to face the tough challenges in order to provide the best for the City’s students. Her goal was to provide direction and stability to a system plagued by the lack of both for many years.

A 1992 report commissioned by Associated Black Charities and conducted by Towers Perrin/Cresap warned against the dangers inherent in constant school reform, including senior staff turnover. After the formation of the City/State Partnership, a 2001 evaluation of the partnership by Westat consulting group pointed out that there “has been considerable turnover at the management level of the BCPSS.” The GBC and the Presidents’ Roundtable report on financial management in the school system, released in 2003, noted that there had been three chief financial officers in the space of eighteen months. Additionally, at that time the position of procurement officer was vacant and the CEO had announced her departure.

Dr. Copeland embraced the recommendations from the financial management report, putting them on the system website and documenting progress as it was made. In 2005 Dr. Copeland asked the GBC to revisit the issues raised in its 2003 financial management report and to inform the system of its progress and what more could be done to improve its management capacity. Dr. Copeland’s desire to bring transparency and accountability to the system should be applauded and the example she set should be followed.

Now the system finds itself in transition again. As the region’s premier business organization, the GBC’s concern is that the system is projecting the image of a culture that seems incapable of retaining top personnel. It projects an image of instability, not an asset for businesses that want to partner with the system – not for other top administrators who may look at the job of CEO, and not for teachers who may consider coming here to teach. Top management talent is attracted to companies and organizations where the management system is stable and where there is some assurance that other entities will not constantly be intruding. Most importantly, the instability is not good for Baltimore’s children. Students will thrive in a system that shows consistency, clear goals, and a long-term plan to achieve those goals with a reasonable expectation of success.

The GBC, as stated in its original report in 2003, still has concerns that the School Board of Commissioners remains more “hands on” in the management of the school system than is necessary and prudent. Although accountability is essential, the city school board must be cognizant of the federal and state reporting requirements that currently exist and must avoid duplicative or excessive internal reporting demands.

A productive school board will let management manage and understand that its role is to advise and give direction. Certainly, it should also recognize and stress the need to create a culture where top administrative talent is attracted and retained.

The GBC hopes that the progress made during Dr. Copeland’s tenure will continue. We wish her the very best in her future endeavors.