As city schools CEO Andrés Alonso steps aside, he's turning the system over to a close adviser he's trusted during some of his administration's most trying moments.
Alonso's chief of staff, Tisha Edwards, will lead the system through the 2014 school year as the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners searches for a permanent replacement.
During a news conference Monday at school headquarters, Alonso called her an "extraordinary leader" who has been "a part of every moment of crisis and every moment of celebration."
"I never knew anybody who cared so much about doing the right thing for kids," Alonso said. "She's been the person withstanding the heat in so many different ways."
Neil E. Duke, the city school board chairman, said the board has agreed to a one-year deal with Edwards, but she has not signed a contract yet. He would not disclose the salary until the deal is finalized, but said it was "reasonable" and consistent with previous superintendent contracts. Alonso makes $260,000 a year.
Edwards, 42, earns $175,000 annually as Alonso's chief of staff.
"I deeply appreciate the board's confidence in me," she said. "We are not looking back. We are moving forward."
Still, some, including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, expressed concern the board would take more than a year to find a replacement for Alonso.
"I have expressed to the chairman of the school board that I believe it is in the best interest of our young people and the school district for them to move sooner rather than later with finding a CEO," Rawlings-Blake said. "The notion that we need to have an interim CEO for a year, I just do not understand the thinking — at all. ... I don't understand why we can't have a CEO in place by the start of the school year. I haven't heard a reason why that makes sense."
Duke said one-year contracts for interim superintendents are common practice. He pledged that the school board will conduct an "exhaustive" national search for a new superintendent. The board has not yet hired a search firm, he said.
"We'll make sure the decision is best for the schools and best for the community," Duke said. "This is a challenging district to run, and the person has to be up for that challenge."
Edwards, who has been Alonso's chief of staff since 2009, is credited with implementing the details of some of the district's high-profile reforms, such as its pay-for-performance union contracts, central office reorganizations and opening new schools. Alonso also has sent her to deal with heated situations, such as speaking to angry parents in Cherry Hill when the district recommended closing Southside Academy High School.
"Tisha has been a great partner, so her doing it takes away any regret," Alonso said. "I am proud of the work we have done, and it's hers as much as mine."
"Now you're going to have a real kick-ass superintendent," Alonso told staff and students at the news conference.
Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said he'd like to see the school board name Edwards the permanent superintendent.
"I have every confidence in Tisha Edwards," Young said. "I think she could move the system along. She was, in my opinion, the chief architect behind what Dr. Alonso was doing. I am hoping that the school board would consider her. ...
"Her leading the school system will send a good message to African-American students, and she's connected in the city. Her child went to city schools and now he is enrolled at Morgan [State University]. She is committed to the city. I think she could keep Dr. Alonso's vision intact."
Edwards first began serving Alonso as his special assistant in January 2008. She started her tenure in the district as the founding principal of the Baltimore Freedom Academy High School, which the school board voted to close this year during charter contract renewals. At Monday's news conference, she was joined by several graduates from the school.
Before entering education, Edwards, who studied social work and law, had a career in social work and serving at-risk youths.
Last year, Edwards was in the running for superintendent in Louisiana's East Baton Rouge Parish, before withdrawing her name. "Being a native southerner, it has always been my ardent desire to return to the south to serve," she wrote in response to an application question.