City officials' scholarships stir criticism.

February 20, 1994|By Thomas W. Waldron and Eric Siegel | Thomas W. Waldron and Eric Siegel,Sun Staff Writers

In a little-known perk of office, top Baltimore elected officials will quietly hand out more than $300,000 of taxpayers' money as scholarships to constituents this year.

With few rules and no oversight, the mayor, City Council members and comptroller award grants to hundreds of constituents, including the parents of children taking weekend art classes at the Maryland Institute, College of Art.

In many ways, the city handouts resemble a small-scale version of the state legislative scholarship program, a perquisite that has been criticized in Annapolis as an outdated form of patronage.

The director of Common Cause of Maryland, one of the most persistent critics of the state legislative scholarships, also criticized the city program after a reporter informed him about it.

"Lawmakers should not distribute scholarships to people who can vote for them at any level of government, whether it's City Council or the state legislature," said Phil Andrews, executive director of the public interest lobbying group. "It is an inherent conflict of interest for legislators to award any form of public aid to individuals who can vote to re-elect them."

In Baltimore, the mayor and the 19 members of the City Council have more than $17,000 a year each to award to students attending the Maryland Institute, Baltimore City Community College or Baltimore International Culinary College. The comptroller can award a smaller amount to students at the community college.

Students who receive the grants are not required to have any financial need, and interviews with City Council members indicate that almost no one who asks for scholarship help is rejected.

In some cases that includes people with close ties to the officials.

For example, a City Council secretary in the 5th District received $420 from her three bosses to take a photography class at the Maryland Institute. Another council secretary, in the 3rd District, sent her two children to weekend art classes last year, thanks to scholarships she received from three council members.

Meanwhile, some students who don't know of the scholarships go begging for help to pay their bills.

A councilmanic scholarship would be a godsend, said Sarah Zielaskiewicz, a 20-year-old junior at the Maryland Institute. Three weeks into the semester, she can't afford $200 worth of books, she said last week. Nobody had mentioned the city program to her.

"It's amazing because I've been searching and searching to get as many scholarships as I can," said Ms. Zielaskiewicz, who grew up in Mount Washington.

Dillon Clarke, a Maryland Institute senior from Northwest Baltimore, said he knew nothing about the scholarship program until his second year at the college, when he went to the financial aid office in a desperate search for money.

"If it was more known, I probably would have jumped at it the first year," Mr. Clarke said. "But I had no idea."

Even Stephen D. Kent, longtime head of the art department at the Baltimore School for the Arts, said he had never heard of the city scholarships, despite sending dozens of students to the Maryland Institute.

"That's very interesting," he said when told about the program.

Officials at CollegeBound Foundation, an offshoot of the Greater Baltimore Committee that helps city students find financia aid for college, said they knew little about the city scholarships.

"We've never received any information from the city about them," said Joyce Kroeller, executive director of CollegeBound.

In a recent survey by Sun reporters of the mayor and council members, three of the 19 members said they support voting themselves out of the scholarship process.

"I'm not real comfortable with it," said Councilman John L. Cain, D-1st. "I don't know who these folks are. I don't know why we are put in the position where we can be doling out money for scholarships."

Four others, including council President Mary Pat Clarke, said they would have no objection to getting rid of the program.

But 12 of those surveyed, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, defended the scholarships, although several said the colleges could award them as well as elected officials can.

Supporters said the grants help needy students go to college and give elected officials a tangible way to help their constituents.

"It makes me feel good," said Councilwoman Rochelle "Rikki" Spector, D-5th. "There are so many things I can't do. I deserve something warm and sweet, don't you think?"

Councilman Martin E. "Mike" Curran, D-3rd, was not available for comment.

Origins mysterious

Nobody seems to be quite sure how city officials began handing out scholarships, although Maryland Institute officials say the program dates back to the turn of the century. Mrs. Clarke said she has been told that the scholarships began as part of some long-forgotten deal between college and city.

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