The mayor finds a political fight the city can't win

September 24, 1995|By BARRY RASCOVAR

IT DIDN'T take Kurt Schmoke long to signal that the ''new'' Schmoke is going to look remarkably like the old one.

Only days after winning re-election, Baltimore's mayor quietly filed suit against the state to get more school aid. It was a move that poisons the water in Annapolis at a time when the city needs all the help it can get from the state.

No way to make friends

From a diplomatic standpoint, this is no way to make friends in high places. From a political standpoint, the court suit was another instance of bungled opportunity.

The mayor wants a judge to dismantle the state's current aid program and force the state to give the city every last dollar it claims is necessary to educate city kids adequately. There's no way this can be done in an anti-tax environment without taking money from suburban schools.

If the city wanted a political fight it can't win, the mayor has found one. And if the city wanted a fight that could have unintended negative consequences, this is it.

Baltimore already receives the lion's share of education aid distributed by the state. This is only right, since the city's education problems are the most troubling and the hardest to rectify. Also, the city is so financially strapped it needs extra state school aid.

But this is the wrong moment to launch a court challenge. It was an unnecessary slap at Gov. Parris Glendening, who stuck out his political neck to stump for Mr. Schmoke. The governor must be muttering to himself, ''This is the thanks I get?''

If Mr. Schmoke had any notions of building bridges with suburban legislators, he can forget it. Politicians don't want to cooperate with a mayor threatening to steal their school aid -- especially in Montgomery County, where education is sacred and legislators get elected by bashing ''greedy'' Baltimore.

The mayor even angered his own legislators. One powerful city lawmaker, Sen. Barbara Hoffman, called the lawsuit ''outrageous.'' She's the wrong person to irritate, since she chairs the Senate's money committee.

Just give us the money

Why does the mayor leave the impression he is unwilling to change school management? His court suit asks a judge to stop the state from mandating reforms in failed city schools. It even asks the court to stop the legislature from withholding $5.8 million in aid that hinges on the city's revamping its school administration.

Whether the mayor intended it or not, the lawsuit looks like a pretext for maintaining the status quo. Give us money, the suit seems to say, but don't hold us accountable for how we spend it. And don't ask us to change our ways -- because we won't.

That's preposterous. The mayor would be better off strategically if he admitted management of city education is a disgrace and then demanded major changes. State legislators are correct that there's more to turning city schools around than money. Tough management, creative uses of resources and ruthless cost-cutting of overhead would impress politicians in Annapolis.

But that's not going to happen. Look at how the city continues to fight resolution of a federal court case involving special education. The city's failure to give these kids decent schooling is appalling. If Baltimore won't fix special-education programs, what hope is there for fixing regular education programs?

The city lawsuit is right on one point. The legislature probably has no legal basis for withholding $5.8 million at the whim of a legislative committee. It's time someone took the General Assembly to court on its penchant to micromanage state and local affairs. If the legislature can dictate changes in city schools, what next? Telling Montgomery County how many school administrators to fire? Ordering Anne Arundel schools to cut spending on computers?

Mr. Schmoke is taking a big gamble. Years from now, the courts might finally order the state to see to it that all city children receive a thorough and efficient education -- as required in the state constitution. But before then, the city could suffer mightily in Annapolis for pursuing this litigation.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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