Baltimore school deal tough sell for Schmoke Mayor encounters opposition at home and in Annapolis

February 24, 1997|By William F. Zorzi Jr. | William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF

As often as four days a week, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is in Annapolis meeting with legislators -- in delegation offices, committee rooms and at the dinner table, in groups and one on one.

These days, Schmoke is huddled in hallways, schmoozing on State Circle and chatting on the fly. He is explaining, pushing and even pleading for approval of a deal that was as difficult for him to swallow as it is to sell now to lawmakers from across the state.

What's foremost on his mind is the General Assembly's approval of the $254 million aid-for-accountability city schools deal. The plan would give Baltimore's schools more state money but take away the mayor's near-exclusive oversight of the school system and give the state a role in running it.

"It's my No. 1 priority," Schmoke says.

And it's a very hard sell -- both in Annapolis and back home in Baltimore.

"Unlike the stadium deal last year, where the overwhelming majority of city legislators thought that was a good deal for Baltimore, many of those legislators this year believe this is less than a good deal," Schmoke said. "At the same time, legislators outside of Baltimore think this is an enormous amount of money going to the city."

Some lawmakers from other areas are wary of putting more state money into the city schools, while others -- including some who are sympathetic to Baltimore's plight -- are using the city package as leverage to gain more state aid for their own counties.

Schmoke is following in the footsteps of other mayors of Baltimore who have made the trek to Annapolis, hat in hand.

He, too, has asked the state for help during his past nine years in office. But this time, the mayor is not simply asking for more money, or handing off to the state a jail or community college that the city's eroding tax base could no longer support.

Giving up control

This time, the mayor of Baltimore is giving up control of the school board and school system and agreeing to change the city power structure that was established nearly a century ago.

It is a plan that has come at a cost to him, politically and personally.

Some city lawmakers, ministers and even Schmoke's political guru, Larry S. Gibson, have objected to the mayor's agreeing to the deal, the result of a settlement of three lawsuits that sought more state money and improvements in the city schools.

His critics have urged him to hold out for more money and refuse to turn over control of another piece of the city to the state. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Schmoke -- the city's first black elected mayor -- betrayed the black voters of Baltimore with that agreement.

"Kurt's in a very difficult position," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said. "He's trying to do the best possible thing for the schoolchildren of Baltimore, but it's tough."

Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., a West Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city's House delegation, explained that while the majority of city legislators support the deal, some have reservations about the shift in power away from City Hall.

"There are those who think it's a sellout," Boston said.

Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat, said he would be voting for the bill, but added, "It's one of those Catch-22s: You're damned if you do and the same if you don't."

Schmoke acknowledged the pressure on the home front as well as the dissatisfaction among some city legislators in Annapolis, best shown by their sponsorship of a handful of bills that are alternatives to House Bill 312, the legislation that grew out of the court settlement and consent decree.

"I think the city delegation reflects the sentiment of the community -- there's real division," Schmoke said.

'Best deal possible'

"I've debated with people I normally wouldn't debate with and it's been the subject of a great deal of discussion, but I really am clear with people that this represents real hope for our kids -- that this is the best deal possible for the children that we are going to get for a long time," he said.

Under the deal, the state would be given a significant role in running the city schools in exchange for $254 million in new aid to the school system over five years.

As part of the court settlement, a new school board would be created, with its members appointed jointly by the governor and mayor from a list of nominees by the state Board of Education, and the top city schools management would be replaced.

The settlement is contingent, however, on the General Assembly's approval of the increase in state education aid.

Schmoke's critics point to the 1994 recommendations of the Governor's Commission on School Funding, commonly called the Hutchinson Commission for its chair, Donald P. Hutchinson. That report recommended up to $140 million in additional state aid to the city each year.

"From Day One, we have fought hard for the Hutchinson report," Schmoke said. "It's very clear that this is less than those recommendations, but it's absolutely the best we're going to be able to get for these children anytime soon."

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