Net gain for a beleaguered governor Computer initiative in schools may offer boost for Glendening

September 29, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening held what may turn out to be his most successful political event of the year this weekend, and he didn't raise a dime.

Net Weekend, the governor's highly promoted initiative to wire classrooms to the Internet, attracted as many as 8,000 volunteers to complete the wiring at 403 Maryland schools as of yesterday evening, according to Dave Humphrey, spokesman for the state Department of General Services.

With 100 schools completed earlier and six more scheduled for today, 509 schools will be connected to the worldwide computer network by the time the weekend is over, Humphrey said. The three-day volunteer effort is expected to save the state $5 million in installation costs.

By all appearances, it was a highly visible success for a governor who is badly in need of one after a summer of controversy over fund raising, casino gambling and feuds with fellow Democrats.

Visits to three Baltimore-area schools yesterday and Friday found that the volunteers were turning out, getting the work done and having a good time doing it. Democrats and Republicans, educators and bureaucrats, computer fiends and computer-phobes were coming together to wire their schools.

"Everything's going fine," said Linwood Brown, a computer technician for Howard County public schools, as he threaded fiber-optic cable through the ceiling at Running Brook Elementary in Columbia. He said there had been a "great" turnout at all five participating county schools and excellent coordination with the governor's office.

What could make Net Weekend a political plus for Glendening is that it didn't look, feel or smell like politics. The volunteers weren't showing up to help the governor. They were doing it for the children.

"I'd like to see this school have Internet access. I use it all the time, every day, and I'd love to see the kids get more exposure," said Steve Drakos, a Social Security employee who turned out at Running Brook, where his wife works and two children used to attend.

Like many of the 25 to 30 volunteers at Running Brook, Drakos didn't know he was participating in an initiative launched by Glendening. Nor did he particularly care. He just thought it was a fine idea.

"The concept of community involvement in Net Weekend is great," he said.

None of the volunteers interviewed at Running Brook, Halethorpe Elementary in Baltimore County and Lois T. Murray School in Baltimore said Net Weekend alone would make them support Glendening for re-election in 1998. Many were well aware of the ethical questions surrounding his administration.

"I don't know if it improves his image, but it was a good thing to do," said Ebony Henry, a Morgan State junior who showed up with several fellow students to help rewire Lois T. Murray, a center for special education students across from the university.

"It's good to know they're not only thinking about football stadiums but also educating the children in Maryland," said Edwin Hubbard, a young single man who volunteered at Running Brook "to do something for the community."

If nothing else, Net Weekend let citizens see another side of Glendening -- the Education Governor instead of fund-raiser-in-chief.

There he was on TV -- a regular guy in casual slacks, well-worn sneakers and a Net Weekend T-shirt -- climbing a ladder and pulling cable.

It was a relaxed, upbeat governor who arrived at Halethorpe Elementary Friday afternoon to kick off the weekend event.

The first thing he did was duck in to say hello to a group of about 50 children who had stayed to get a glimpse of the governor.

"By the Internet, you'll be able to connect to all sorts of new knowledge sources," said Glendening, who stayed briefly to chat with the students while the grown-ups cooled their heels in the library. They beamed at the friendly gray-haired man with the goofy grin. It's one of the best-kept secrets of the Glendening administration: The guy gets along great with kids.

After a short round of remarks, the governor pitched in briefly for the work. Then it was off to Montgomery for another Net Weekend event. Yesterday would take him to two Prince George's County schools and more cable-pulling.

"It's kind of fun to get out of the office and do stuff like this," he said.

The networking initiative, inspired by a similar Net Day in California, won the admiration and participation of many of Glendening's professional colleagues.

The state school superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, put aside her sometimes-tense relations with the governor to pull a Net Weekend shirt over her dress and feed wire through a ceiling panel. She had nothing but praise for the "excellent job" the governor's office did in coordinating the weekend activities with her department.

Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, mentioned as a possible primary rival to the governor, was out pulling wire yesterday at Ring Factory Elementary in Bel Air. In Halethorpe, Republican Del. Donald E. Murphy showed up at the Friday kickoff, looking out of place in a suit and tie. But he was back yesterday dressed for work, according to Humphrey.

Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Hagerstown Democrat who criticized the governor in the past, lauded Net Weekend as "great politics" especially because it reached beyond the Baltimore and Washington areas and into nearly every Maryland county.

"It's meaningful. It's not a bunch of political jargon. It's not a political fund-raiser," Poole said. "I think Parris would do himself and the state a lot more benefit if he would do one like this more often."

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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