Hands on, Mr. Mayor

April 23, 1991

The city school board's announcement last weekend of five semifinalists for the next Baltimore superintendent of schools raises a thorny political problem for Mayor Kurt Schmoke in this election year: How closely should the mayor, who staked much political capital on improving the schools during his 1987 election campaign, identify himself with the selection process of a new schools chief this time around?

Technically, of course, it is the school board members, not the mayor, who are supposed to make the final decision in such matters. But Schmoke broke precedent three years ago when he overrode the board selection process and hand-picked Richard C. Hunter for the job. Hardly anyone faulted him at the time because that highly public gesture was widely perceived as a signal of the new mayor's commitment to education and his willingness to take political risks in order to force change.

As it happened, Hunter proved an unfortunate choice. Now some people around the mayor doubtless are counseling Schmoke not to risk a repetition of that embarrassment by injecting himself publicly again in the superintendent selection process. And Schmoke seems to be listening: Yesterday The Evening Sun's Mark Bomster reported that, so far at least, the mayor indeed is taking a "hands-off approach" to the deliberations.

That may be smart politics, but will it serve the best interests of the city when education is No. 1 on the agenda of this mayor?

Remember, Schmoke was able to break the "hands off" taboo largely because (1) voters themselves demanded a change from City Hall's traditional indifference to the schools and (2) Schmoke was seen as uniquely qualified, by virtue of his own accomplishments and his proclaimed agenda, to intervene directly in school matters in a way that none of his predecessors was.

The fact that Hunter didn't work out doesn't alter the basic fact that school reform is still the most important item on this city's agenda and that, as mayor, the buck stops with Schmoke. For better or worse, the schools ultimately will bear his imprint as indelibly as the Inner Harbor bears that of his predecessor. There is no way Schmoke can avoid involving himself in this issue, and no real justification for him to try to do so. Being a "hands on" mayor when it comes to the schools is what the job is about.

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