Governor, mayor, do delicate dance Political power, votes at stake in dispute over city schools

June 22, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

The talk about Baltimore's schools these days is all management and money, but the bottom line is votes.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants to preserve the support of his ally, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and the Schmoke organization so he can win again in 1998.

A 9-to-1 Democratic city, Baltimore is at least a third of the Glendening base: it helped elect him in 1994. Two Washington-area counties, Prince George's and Montgomery, provided the rest of his 5,993-vote margin.

So now he offers the city big money to increase teacher pay, put books in the classroom -- and win relief from a suit filed by Baltimore challenging Maryland's system of educational funding.

L The Glendening offer: at least $140 million over four years.

He made it in spite of forecasts that his operating budget for next year is already $221 million out of balance. And there is more, according to Appropriations Committee Chairman Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat: The governor has promised privately to forgive a recently discovered overpayment to the city -- based on inflated attendance figures -- of between $30 million and $50 million in state aid.

The mayor's reaction to this gubernatorial largess? Not nearly enough.

The city needs at least $100 million more a year, said the man with the votes. Schmoke fired off a tough letter to the governor, suggesting he would not settle cheaply -- and might not accept the accountability "strings" Glendening demands.

Thus began what state Sen. Christopher Van Hollen, a Montgomery Democrat, called a "dance" between fundamentally close political partners -- Glendening and Schmoke -- men who probably have more reasons to stay together than to separate.

Schmoke may not wish to suggest, by ceding authority over the schools, that he has failed to make Baltimore "the city that PTC reads," his first and most famous promise eight years ago. He might wish to be a U.S. senator -- and Glendening, who has the legal authority, could make him one by appointment if either of the state's incumbent senators were to leave office early.

At the same time, the three-term mayor would achieve a certain celebrity if he remained resolute and achieved what predecessors have failed to do: parity in funding with other Maryland counties. The school bureaucracy may have deficiencies, but even its critics acknowledge its financial needs.

Glendening is the man in the middle. He can offer money to stay at the top of the Schmoke dance card, but the Assembly must approve his bid. Typically, one jurisdiction does not move far ahead of another in state aid, so the cost of dealing with Baltimore could be substantially higher as votes are secured by other distributions of aid around the state.

To sell the Baltimore proposal, Glendening has said he wants a better product from city classrooms. He wants a partnership in ++ which state officials would work with the city to produce more graduates who can read and compute.

A continuing irony of this struggle is that city legislators -- particularly Rawlings -- are leading the struggle for better management, promising to punish the city by withholding funds if progress isn't made.

"There's got to be some kind of partnership," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat. "When you appropriate in excess of $400 million into an educational system, you would expect to see a great amount of positive results, but that hasn't occurred."

Montgomery County legislators -- no fans of more money for Baltimore -- have applauded the city's legislators.

"There are some differences between us," says Montgomery Democrat Van Hollen, "but legislators from Montgomery and the city see eye to eye on this. There's no regional split here."

City-state partnership

Glendening has been on both sides of the accountability issue -- backing reform, supporting a city-state partnership and then vetoing a bill that would have withheld money from the city as a punishment for its failure to deliver on certain management promises.

Since that veto, Rawlings contends, the governor has swerved back toward accountability, insisting he will impose financial penalties if the city does not buy into the partnership by July 28. The $140 million offered last week won't be approved without a partnership agreement, he predicted.

"Most of my colleagues from other jurisdictions were amazed that what they saw as a generous proposal by Glendening was rejected," he said. The mayor will be taking a risk if he takes his opposition too far, he said.

"All the governor has to do is take his offer off the table and let the courts decide. There's no indication the courts will do any better," he said.

Glendening might not wish to force change on his city allies, but he has some latitude.

"Parris says he needs Kurt," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat, "But where are the city's voters going? Are they going to vote for (Republican) Ellen R. Sauerbrey?"

The mayor suggests that Baltimoreans will resent a state takeover. Sen. Della says many would welcome it. And state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, thinks the governor can finesse it.

"If he can spin money toward the city, the accountability part is more salable. They'll remember the money and forget the oversight," the senator said.

Pub Date: 6/22/96

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