Schmoke under fire

December 24, 1990

In light of the school board's announced intention not to renew School Superintendent Richard C. Hunter's contract when it expires next July, Hunter's apparent unwillingness to accept that decision is baffling to say the least. Since last week it has been plain that Hunter is now a lame duck; the likelihood that the school board would reverse itself against Mayor Schmoke's wishes is virtually nil. That doesn't mean the superintendent can't seek to turn the circumstances of his departure into an opportunity for political mischief-making, however, and Hunter's odd behavior indeed makes such a scenario more plausible as time goes on.

No one wants to see a repeat here of the kind of disturbance that Washington Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins stirred up last month when he was fired amid raucous demonstrations. In that disgraceful episode, a defiant superintendent tried to create a political base independent of the elected school board to which he was answerable. The circumstances are quite different in Baltimore, however. Here an appointed school board serves essentially at the pleasure of the mayor. Conceivably Hunter could create a spectacle, but he has even less prospect of prevailing than Jenkins had in Washington.

The handwriting had been on the wall for Hunter since last spring, when Schmoke's public criticism of the schools subsided only after an agreement was reached to hire a deputy to oversee the system's day-to-day operations. The mayor made it abundantly clear then that he had lost confidence in his superintendent's ability to manage the reform process; in retrospect, he probably now wishes he had forced the issue rather than settle for a face-saving compromise.

For precisely that reason, Schmoke cannot avoid a share of responsibility for the disarray now swirling about the school system. Even if the matter of Hunter's departure is resolved without further complications, there is little doubt the mayor has been hurt politically by the dispute. Facing re-election next year, he has precious little to show for his commitment to education, the centerpiece of his 1987 campaign, and whatever appearance of stability and continuity might have emerged from an orderly transition on North Avenue has been undermined by recent events. Potential contenders for the mayor's office are already castigating what they call Schmoke's vacillation, and the complaints are certain to grow louder as Election Day approaches.

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