Glendening-Grasmick relationship tense School chief mentioned as possible candidate for governor's job

September 16, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

At a breakfast of business and political leaders in Baltimore last week, Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick praised some of the heroes of the state's ambitious education reform efforts.

Among others, Grasmick cited former Gov. William Donald Schaefer, the "visionary" who brought her into state government, key legislators and several Baltimore education leaders.

But for the governor, Parris N. Glendening, she had no warm words. Grasmick instead reiterated her opposition to some of his recent decisions in the battle over control of the Baltimore school system, finally reminding the group that she works for the state school board.

"I am not appointed by the governor," she said. "I am insulated from that kind of political pressure."

Grasmick's words spoke volumes about the somewhat strained relationship between Glendening and the state's top education official.

The two started badly during the 1994 campaign when Glendening was cool to some of the reforms Grasmick has championed, although he since has endorsed them.

After initial talk about ousting Grasmick, Glendening came out strongly on her side last year, and both now say they have forged a good working relationship. But interviews with top state officials and recent clashes between the two make it clear that some tension persists at the top of Maryland's education hierarchy.

Any awkwardness between them can only be exacerbated by talk that Grasmick might run against Glendening when he seeks election in 1998, a rumor that Grasmick refuses to quash.

"I want to leave my options open," she said. Then she added, "I'll just say, 'No comment.' "

Glendening chuckled when asked about the idea of an election challenge from a member of his Cabinet. "I don't worry anything about the politics," he said. "I'm just trying to focus on education."

Some lawmakers contend Glendening would like to replace Grasmick, who has been state schools chief since 1991, with his own person. Glendening denies it, and many observers believe him.

They say Glendening has learned to live with the independent-minded superintendent because of political reality: For an unelected bureaucrat, Grasmick has an impressive array of powerful friends, and it is in his best interest to keep her on board.

"I think Nancy Grasmick, at this point in our state's history, is too popular for the governor to cross swords with," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Grasmick fan.

When Glendening took over as governor last year, it seemed likely he would try to replace Grasmick.

She was strongly disliked by the teachers unions that had helped Glendening to his narrow victory. She also was a close associate of Schaefer, no friend of the new governor's. Grasmick had even given Glendening an insulting grade of C-minus on his education views in a magazine interview during the 1994 campaign.

The sweet-voiced but determined superintendent personified the state's school-reform efforts. She had pushed for statewide performance tests to identify poorly functioning schools, a new high school graduation examination and a mechanism in which the state would step in to help run failing schools.

As a candidate, Glendening had been less than enthusiastic about her program.

When he made noises last year that he wanted her out, Glendening learned about Grasmick's influence. Business leaders, community activists, editorial writers and heavy hitters in the General Assembly rallied to her defense.

Walter Sondheim, the respected civic activist who had agreed to Glendening's request to serve on the state school board, told the governor he would quit if Grasmick were fired, sources said.

"I think a lot of people said to the governor, 'She's one of the best things you have in state government,' " said Christopher T. Cross, president of the board and a strong Grasmick supporter. "We've got good momentum here. To change leaders is to create chaos. We don't need that."

Teachers unions and others were just as adamant that Grasmick be removed.

"I heard on both sides," Glendening said last week. "There were some people who loved her and some who hated her."

In the end, Grasmick won. Glendening fully endorsed her agenda for school reform and made an unusual appearance at the school board last year when it extended Grasmick's employment for another four-year term.

Under state law, Grasmick works for the board, whose members are appointed to staggered terms by the governor.

Even so, it seems likely that Glendening would have the power to force Grasmick out of office if he chose. But the damage could be enormous, observers said.

"He could do it -- but with great political risk," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and an ardent Grasmick ally. "He would literally have to threaten the board. He would have to use his budgetary powers and other persuasions."

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