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Alonso's departure: A blow and an opportunity

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso's resignation at the end of this academic year is a major blow to a city whose trajectory he helped change. There can be little doubt that the energetic and rapid reforms he implemented in the city's long-struggling school system have set the stage for broader renewal and growth in Baltimore. But city leaders also need to look on his departure as a tremendous opportunity, a chance to bring in a new superintendent who will build on Mr. Alonso's successes. The city school board has promised a national search for his replacement, and it should settle for nothing short of greatness. Baltimore, under Mr. Alonso's leadership, established itself as the pace-setter for education reform in America, and the combination of his accomplishments and the city's eagerness to support often difficult reforms should make this one of the most attractive positions for a superintendent in the nation.

Mr. Alonso, paraphrasing race car driver Mario Andretti, adopted as his mantra the notion that if you feel totally in control, you're not going fast enough. Indeed, Baltimore's schoolchildren have only one chance to get an education, and Mr. Alonso felt keenly that they could not wait for the adults who run the school system to get it right. Upon his arrival here six years ago, he began a radical decentralization of a system that had grown top-heavy, sending money and autonomy to principals while cutting the North Avenue headquarters staff by a third. He closed schools that were failing and opened new, better ones. He made teachers, principals and other administrators responsible for personally contacting students who had dropped out and urging them to come back. He reduced out-of-school suspensions and established an alternative school on North Avenue. He expanded school choice, embraced charter schools and hammered out a landmark teacher contract that will link pay with growth in student performance.

The result: The dropout rate is down, the graduation rate is up, and student test scores are substantially higher than they were when he arrived. Crucially for a city seeking a rebound, the list of city schools that can now compete with the best options in the suburbs has steadily grown, making it easier for families to choose to stay here.

Mr. Alonso has not been perfect. Cheating scandals at some schools — and a bungling of the district's investigation into them — hurt public trust in his leadership and raised doubts about the gains he had made. Stories of financial mismanagement — lavish meals on school system credit cards; hefty overtime bills for Mr. Alonso's driver and others; a $250,000 renovation of the information technology chief's office suite; overpayment of staff; and uncollected debts — made clear that Mr. Alonso had not completely vanquished the waste and inefficiency that plagued the system before his arrival. And his attempt to hire as his chief deputy the former school board president — who turned out to have a record of personal financial troubles and who lied about his academic qualifications — looked like the fruit of hubris.

But the real trouble Mr. Alonso faced was that the rapid rise in test scores the system's students posted during his early years had plateaued. The ideas he put in place when he came to Baltimore, it seems, could only do so much to improve performance, and it was not clear what Mr. Alonso had for a second act. Given all he had accomplished so far, the school board certainly had reason to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Mr. Alonso's decision to resign so that he can spend more time with his ailing parents gives the board the chance to find someone who can build on Mr. Alonso's reforms to the district's structure and governance and achieve a similar degree of success in improving classroom-level instruction. Mr. Alonso has created a situation in which success is possible; his replacement needs to provide teachers with the training and resources to guarantee that they achieve it.

The board cannot settle for second-best, and it shouldn't have to. Some cities — including the one 45 miles to the south — have balked at the kind of difficult reforms Mr. Alonso enacted. Baltimore embraced them and asked for more. And if the freedom that implies isn't enough to attract stellar candidates, we can offer a major sweetener: a $1 billion school construction and renovation program approved this spring by the General Assembly. Not many urban school districts offer that kind of opportunity.

Baltimore owes an enormous debt to Mr. Alonso for his passion, insight and vigor. He accomplished more in his six years here than his predecessors had in a generation. But we cannot allow his departure to set back the cause of school reform. Baltimore's schoolchildren can't afford that.

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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