Mayor Schmoke Brings the 'Shadow Government' Back to Town

R. B. JONES

July 24, 1992|By R. B. JONES

Paranoia is rampant these days among state elected officials. Gov. William Donald Schaefer acts like a petty dictator, gagging state employees so bad news won't panic the citizenry. Now Mr. Schaefer's old nemesis, Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke, has become similarly high-handed.

When Mr. Schmoke ran for mayor in 1987, he promised an administration based on ''openness'' and pledged to end the so-called ''shadow government'' that had flourished under his predecessors. He said Baltimore needed a city government that didn't view community groups as mere appendages of City Hall.

In one of his first pronouncements as mayor, Mr. Schmoke accepted the agenda of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a coalition of several hundred churches and community groups, and pledged to work for it. After years of Mayor Schaefer's authoritarian style, a smiling candidate who promised open government seemed like a breath of fresh air.

Even as the Schmoke administration went about its business, however, there was grumbling among some BUILD constituents. Yet the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance and the Baptist Ministerial Alliance, the two largest black church organizations, went easy on Mr. Schmoke in public even while complaining about him in private. Whether it was cowardice or a paralysis fueled by the notion that African-Americans shouldn't criticize their own in public, these groups basically have given the mayor a free ride on the issues of schools and housing.

Now, however, Mayor Schmoke and his school superintendent, Walter Amprey, have shown BUILD and the rest of the city that ''shadow government'' is back. It was done with Mr. Schmoke's ''aw shucks,'' boyish grin instead of Mr. Schaefer's baleful stare and threatening snarl. But the meaning was the same.

Last month, with no virtually community scrutiny, no debate and no public discussion, Mr. Amprey signed a letter of intent to turn over nine city schools to Educational Alternatives Inc., a private, Minneapolis-based educational consulting firm that seeks to make money by selling educational reforms to school systems ** where traditional education seems to be failing.

School department staff members were stunned. So was the City Council, which had just finished budget deliberations for fiscal year 1992-1993. The announcement that nine schools would be privatized caught BUILD and the two ministerial alliances by surprise and left them deeply embarrassed at being out of the loop. Even some members of the school board heard about the signing only an hour before the press conference.

On Monday night Mr. Schmoke told BUILD he was going forward with the EAI project despite their opposition to the idea and despite their past history of discussion and debate. School lTC board members, except for the few who were let in on the EAI deal, are still in shock from the cavalier way they were treated.

EAI is being given $25 million to run the nine schools. Yet its only previous experience in public education has been with a single public school that it has run for a year in Miami Beach, Fla. EAI hoped the Miami Beach experiment would prove it could produce quality education. The Baltimore contract is intended to show that it can also make money.

It seems that friendly despotism has returned to Baltimore. The mayor has handled an issue of paramount importance to the city as if he were ruler of some banana republic. Baltimore is going to hand over its schools to a relatively unproven, for-profit company without public debate or scrutiny.

And we thought government by decree had been discredited. Mr. Schaefer and Mr. Schmoke have more in common than they realize: autocratic paranoia.

R. B. Jones is editor of the Baltimore Times.

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