"We can't play the same role," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has told Baltimoreans United for Leadership Development. "Ultimately the responsibility for governing in this city is mine."
This is the first time we can recall Mr. Schmoke has put his foot down, telling a community group he is in charge. That the group was BUILD, a 15-year-old church-based coalition that often in the past worked in close cooperation with the Schmoke administration, sends a special signal. But what is the signal?
Listening to the mayor in the packed sanctuary of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, we got the distinct impression he does not intend to let anyone get in his way as Baltimore begins a crucial experiment in privatization of public education. BUILD has gone vocally on the record as opposing the turning over of nine public schools to a profit-making company that promises to improve them. But the mayor is convinced he is right and wants to proceed. "I believe [the experiment] is in the best interests of children," he proclaimed.
By resolutely rejecting BUILD's demand for a moratorium on further privatization experiments, the mayor seemed to say he had come to the conclusion that if Baltimore City's many abysmal schools are to be turned around, that can be best done by encouraging different types of experiments. He mentioned Waverly's Barclay school as an example. Parents at that school wanted to adopt a private curriculum; the superintendent opposed the request. After a nightmarish bureaucratic tug-of-war (which cost the then-superintendent his job), Barclay's wish was fulfilled. Now there is no controversy, only climbing test scores.
The Barclay controversy taught Mr. Schmoke a thing or two about the school system. He grew increasingly distrustful of central bureaucrats, for example. He has repeatedly pledged to make education his administration's priority and he seems determined to do so.
The mayor's message may have been delivered at BUILD but it was meant, we think, for other organizations as well. Over the years, too many pressure groups have carved zones of influence in the school headquarters, designating administrators they want to protect at all costs. This "holy cow" system is now coming under scrutiny from Councilman Carl Stokes (D., 2nd), the new education committee chairman on the City Council. It is about time.
Some citizens and organizations may interpret Mr. Schmoke's new firmness as an attack on community participation. They shouldn't see it that way. BUILD itself has pledged to become even more active in school matters -- opposing the mayor!