THERE'S NOTHING like a pending election campaign to wake up a slumbering politician.
That's what we witnessed last week in Baltimore, where Mayor )) Schmoke's prolonged honeymoon with school chief Richard C. Hunter ended abruptly. The ensuing divorce may be messy, depending on Dr. Hunter's stubbornness, but there is no doubt who is going to win this tussle. Chalk one up in the win column for the mayor.
From a political standpoint, it is a big win. Overnight, Mr. Schmoke has seemingly created a new public persona: determined, outspoken, courageous enough to make the tough decisions and then order his minions to carry them out without dissent. That's quite a change for a mayor who often has appeared remote, indecisive and unwilling to create a public stir.
Getting rid of Dr. Hunter eliminates what could have been a major bone of contention in the upcoming mayoral campaign. And making the decision this soon could remove the issue of education from the 1991 campaign agenda entirely. Potential opponents won't be able to use Dr. Hunter's inept performance as a symbol of the Schmoke administration's failures -- and of the mayor's failed campaign promise to make education his No. 1 priority. And since there aren't many leaders in the black community rallying to Dr. Hunter's defense, critics of the mayor won't have much success turning Dr. Hunter into a martyr.
Still, Mr. Schmoke is responsible for hiring Dr. Hunter -- over school board objections. He must further take the blame for standing by Dr. Hunter even after it became abundantly apparent that he wasn't suited for the demanding job.
He conceded those points last week. And for the first time in his administration, the mayor got publicly angry. He displayed swift decision-making and executive leadership. Moreover, he took the step elected officials find most distasteful -- publicly firing someone. Yes, Dr. Hunter may hang on till the end of the school year when his contract runs out, but he became a ''non-person'' as soon as the mayor made his announcement.
Almost from the outset, Dr. Hunter displayed a stunning lack of political instinct. He alienated the very forces that he needed to succeed. The Barclay Elementary School dispute demonstrates how badly Dr. Hunter bungled his assignment.
Barclay had been trying for a year prior to Dr. Hunter's arrival to gain approval for an experiment in which the Charles Village public school would implement a private school curriculum. Barclay's principal, teachers and especially parents of students at this successfully integrated school were vocal in their support of this experiment. They even lined up foundation money for teacher training and supplies.
But the school got nowhere with city school headquarters. The ** bureaucrats didn't want to give up any of their power.
When Dr. Hunter took over, he had a chance to adopt the Barclay project as his own. He could have embraced it warmly as a worth-while experiment. He would have won praise from parents, teachers and principals. And he would have sent a strong message to the bureaucracy that this superintendent intended to shake things up.
If the Barclay project failed, he could have chalked it up to a necessary experiment. If it succeeded, he would have gained all the credit. By now, the experiment would have borne results, and Dr. Hunter could have cited it as a prime reason why he should be re-hired. Instead, Dr. Hunter saw the Barclay school effort as a threat. He tried over and over to kill it. He dragged his feet until finally the mayor ordered him to begin the experiment. He turned a golden opportunity, lying at his feet the day he arrived, into an example of failed leadership.
Dr. Hunter's ''solution'' to the city's school woes was simple: another $100 million from the state. That wasn't acceptable in Annapolis, and it belatedly wasn't acceptable in City Hall. The city first must do more with its own meager education funds before it can persuade the governor and General Assembly to approve extra aid. Dr. Hunter never understood this. As the mayor finally admitted last week, the city wasn't getting its money's worth: For $500 million, Baltimore's schools ought to be doing better.
Mr. Schmoke now can go into 1991 with the Hunter imbroglio on its way to resolution. When the mayor runs for re-election, there will be a new superintendent in place -- with a mandate to launch creative initiatives. Mr. Schmoke can claim that he had the courage to admit a mistake and then set the schools on an exciting new path. That's known as being a decisive leader. It's also known as being a savvy politician.