CEO Bonnie Copeland Leaving Baltimore Schools Cause for Concern

Written by Patricia Hawke for Schools K-12

CEO Bonnie Copeland left the Baltimore schools on July 1, 2006.  She had been with them for three years, which is a norm for an urban school superintendent. Her leaving, however, was not of her own choosing.

The Baltimore schools board felt she had a low-key management style and did was not a strong enough leader to make the changes needed to reform the Baltimore schools. Their reasoning appears to have been a bit flawed.

During her tenure with the Baltimore schools, Copeland managed a financial and management turnaround that was recognized by major rating agencies and school systems nationwide, and eliminated 1,100 positions — even though her predecessor, Carmen Russo had left the school system in a mess. Test scores were on the rise, and she received high marks for her significant progress in the Baltimore schools from the GBC, a regional top business advocacy group. This came in 2003, after the group’s financial review of the Baltimore schools.

Copeland was not without her enemies, however.  The Greater Baltimore Committee, entrenched in bureaucracy and complacency, was not a supporter of Copeland, and they still rule the Baltimore schools. Additionally, politicians, who wished to damage Mayor Martin O’Malley, saw the troubled Baltimore schools as the perfect instrument. A political battle between the mayor, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan, and Governor Robert Ehrlick ensued, with Copeland unfairly caught in the middle.

The Baltimore schools board became involved with Copeland and her staff’s day-to-day operations, making her job impossible to execute. This type of interference will hinder the next CEO as well, unless the Baltimore schools board comes to its senses.

Copeland took over under terrible circumstances that would have crippled a lesser CEO, yet she did much to improve the Baltimore schools. She was the fifth CEO since 1997.  The Baltimore schools track record with their CEOs is not a good one.

The community is frustrated over Copeland’s leaving. She did much to connect business people and companies with the Baltimore schools, and they fear these connections will be reversed. Parents are concerned for their children’s future educational prospects.

Loss of a serious reformer for the Baltimore schools makes it difficult for the community to be optimistic for the future.  The middle schools and the special education program are still in trouble, too many children are dropping out or unprepared to enter the workplace or college, and progress is sure to slow down now that Copeland has left.  It appears that reform will remain elusive until the board and opponents give a good CEO the opportunity to do his or her job.