Keep your vile money, the mayor tells the guv

July 21, 1996|By Sara Engram

ONE WEEK REMAINS before Gov. Parris N. Glendening's 60-day deadline for the city to sign on to a city-state schools partnership. The governor took a bold risk on behalf of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, but so far his political ally seems unwilling to return the favor.

That leaves a puzzling situation. Before this confrontation, the mayor's primary goal -- more dollars for the schools -- was within reach.

The initial amount promised by the governor may not have been as much as the mayor wants, but it couldn't be described as insignificant, with projections of an additional $50 million a year by 2001.

During the next five years, the city would receive some $32.5 million in additional poverty grants, $19.5 million to bring city teacher salaries in line with Baltimore County salaries, and $100 million to help in the reconstitution of marginal or failing schools.

Given the state's tight fiscal constraints, the legislature's attempts to impose some accountability on these funds cannot be described as unreasonable.

But the mayor says it is, attacking plans for a partnership as insulting. That tactic might have been more effective before the state embarked on its ambitious school-reform effort, when there was less structure for judging the effectiveness of schools.

Now, however, all other jurisdictions have accepted the risks and rewards of the state's performance-evaluation program. For the city to balk at being held to the same standard doesn't play well across the state.

The mayor may win in the short run -- after all, he succeeded in persuading the governor to veto a bill attaching strings to $5.9 million in state funds for city schools (and then maintained he had never agreed to Mr. Glendening's terms for the veto).

Yet winning a stand-off with the governor is one thing; escaping the wrath of the legislature will be quite another. Governor Glendening may have thought his less confrontational approach would bring better results, but legislators concerned about failing city schools learned long ago that moving a system as big and bureaucratic as the city's takes more stick than carrot.

Remember, the punitive bill vetoed by the governor came only after several years of prodding the system. Some progress was made on recommended management reforms, but it was so little and so late that legislators felt justified in imposing some consequences by docking the salaries of administrators judged responsible for the failure to make changes.

For one example, the legislature had said as far back as 1993 that it wanted the schools to implement a merit-based system for staff and teacher evaluation. Although there is now a proposal for such a system, it is at least a year or two away from being put in place.

Blame it on poverty

The mayor leans heavily on studies showing that the city's poverty rate puts heavier burdens on the schools. But that's not at issue. Anyone familiar with city schools knows they need more money. What most people question is whether money alone -- or money without accountability -- will guarantee improvements.

Mayor Schmoke is putting his faith in the courts, hoping that a sympathetic judge will simply order the state to hand over the money, ignoring the legislature's history of concern about city schools management as well as the damning details of mismanagement revealed in the special-education lawsuit that has been dragging on in the federal courts.

Even if the mayor wins his bet, the money won't be forthcoming for a few more years. Meanwhile, he's turning down money the system needs now.

There is also the distinct possibility that this lawsuit won't be any more successful than previous attempts to win in court what the city has failed to get in Annapolis.

What if the city wins its case? Mayor Schmoke should be prepared for another possibility: a decision that the city deserves more money, but that the state also deserves more accountability -- thus putting so many strings on any award to the city that a partnership is, in effect, imposed by the courts.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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