Oink, oink! Where's mine?

March 23, 1997|By Barry Rascovar

OINK! OINK! Porcine sounds emanate from the hallways of the Maryland General Assembly. And the biggest pigs of all? Representatives of Maryland's largest suburbs -- Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties.

Don't take my word for it. Here's what Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller of Prince George's said of these counties' performance in the proposal to revamp Baltimore City schools and increase aid by $254 million over five years: ''They are acting like hogs feeding at the trough.''

Don't accept Mr. Miller's word alone, either. House Speaker Casper R. Taylor of Allegany County said much the same thing last week. County executives are getting greedy in seeking so much money for their jurisdictions -- $332 million -- in exchange for supporting the city school-aid plan. The desperate straits of Baltimore school kids don't concern these county officials; they are using these kids as hostages in a brazen bid for more state cash.

If Maryland had a strong governor, one with a large bloc of loyalists in the legislature, one who knew how to wheel and deal to craft solid majorities, these local officials would have been run over by a speeding political locomotive by now. That is not the case. Instead, a deeply divided legislature has been left to grapple with this complex problem.

Shaking up the city's deplorable schools; kicking out the disgraced leadership; letting the mayor and governor jointly appoint a new school board, and imposing tough accountability standards are absolutely critical to Baltimore's future. So is the $254 million needed to give city schools the supplies, equipment and specialized personnel to start turning around shockingly low test scores.

Giving more aid to Montgomery, P.G. and Baltimore counties pales in comparison to the Herculean job of cleaning up the city's education mess. Baltimore remains this state's weakest economic link, the millstone that is depressing Maryland's efforts to regain its competitive edge in the battle for jobs. Rescuing the city's failing school system would greatly brighten future prospects. It would leave the city with only one major impediment -- its abominable crime and drug problem.

It took a court-directed consent order to get a resistant Baltimore lTC Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to agree to a deal with the state involving an overhaul of the city schools in exchange for desperately needed school aid. Now the General Assembly must approve the plan, and the money. That's where the county executives, and their equally avaricious legislators, enter the picture.

Let's make a deal

The premise is simple: Give us our ''fair'' share. But none of these counties has a bankrupt school system. If the goal is to direct aid to schools with the worst academic performances, the city wins hands-down. But county leaders see a chance to extract more money for themselves. So the game in Annapolis is to hold the city school-aid package out the window and threaten to drop it unless the administration and city lawmakers agree to a deal.

Complicating matters is the drive for a big income-tax cut -- which makes an enlarged school-aid package tough to shoehorn into the budget. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has added to the equation a demand for passage of his Smart Growth land-use bill, his ''Thriving by Three'' aid bill for middle-income mothers and children, and a higher tobacco tax as his quid pro quo on a school-aid plan that rewards the city and the counties.

On top of that, a number of city officials are trying to block the entire deal. Some are carrying water for the teachers union; some feel the counties are cruelly taking advantage of the city's dire situation; some want the city to keep full power over the schools, regardless of their massive failings, and some want the city to hold out for far more than $254 million if autonomy is to be sacrificed.

Yet the biggest impediment to approval of a Baltimore school-rescue package is the swinish behavior of the Big Three counties. ''Greed is good,'' may be a great motto on Wall Street, but not in a legislature where working for the common good and helping the state's most impoverished citizens are supposed to be the primary objectives.

Barry Rascovar is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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