Sauerbrey gets it right on Northern

November 30, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Imagine this: Ellen Sauerbrey, candidate for governor and well-known inflater of numbers, went to Northern High School last week and correctly stated both her arithmetic and her sense of outrage.

She said it was appalling that 1,200 kids were suspended from Northern. Unlike her last political campaign, she didn't take the numbers and then take flight. ("Actually," we could imagine her saying, "there were 12,000 suspensions, and some of them weren't even registered to go to school, and some were dead or in prison, and all of them were Democrats!")

But, unlike three years ago, when she nearly defeated Parris Glendening and then wasted all that underdog good will with a series of phony cries about voter fraud, this time Sauerbrey acted - can we say this? - gubernatorial.

Standing against a backdrop of the beleaguered Northern High, she called the mass suspensions "an act of desperation from a principal who needed help a long time ago." And then she made it personal.

She criticized the governor for failing to pay attention to such problems, and she criticized the mayor of Baltimore, Kurt L. Schmoke, for saying nothing at all, which is what he does.

Each man was quick to respond, and each got it exactly wrong.

"Partisan political rhetoric," Glendening called it, as though he would never deign to use such a tactic. "To use Northern High School as an opportunity for blaming and finger-pointing sends a terrible message to the very students we are here to educate."

Baloney.

In her mass suspension, Northern Principal Alice Morgan Brown gave us an opportunity for honest public dialogue. We now have an X-ray of the interior of a school in deep trouble. We don't see such things often enough. We see numbers - dropout rates, test scores - that are painful to read but have been glossed over for years by school administrators and politicians eager not to be branded for the failures of the system and who have told us, like the generals in Vietnam, of light at the end of some imaginary tunnel.

Glendening's wrong, and he knows it. It isn't "partisan political rhetoric" to say we're losing another generation of the city's young people. It isn't partisan politics to wonder aloud: Where are the parents when all this is happening? You run the risk of losing as many votes as you gain, but at least you've asked an honest question. It isn't partisan to ask: Where were the voices of teachers while all this was going on last week, and for the previous 25 years?

Then there was the response from Schmoke, who said, "I think it's a stretch to try to get the governor involved in the discipline problems at Northern High School. I think some would say Mrs. Sauerbrey is diving deep for her pearls."

As pearls of wisdom go, the mayor should clam up. But it's what we've come to expect from this man over the decade of his tenure at City Hall.

If it's "a stretch" to get the governor involved in some school's discipline problems, is it too much for a mayor? Actually: no, and yes.

In his heart, there's nothing more important to Schmoke than the life of this city's schools and its young people. This is a politician who owes everything he has to his own scholastic resume. He knows what the world inside classrooms can do for the rest of people's lives - if only they'll take advantage of it.

But this is a guy who has never found his voice. He's never understood that, just as he's been a father to his own children at home, he's the father figure to an entire city, which once imagined it could turn to him for guidance and a clear moral compass.

The job isn't just about long-range business development and zoning permits and wondering where to take your political career when the City Hall gig runs its course. It's about having a voice, about the thing Teddy Roosevelt called the bully pulpit.

It's about saying: Certain things, we cannot tolerate. It's about going into troubled communities waiting to hear from a treasured son who heads this city, and telling painful truths about the children of those communities, and telling truths about parental guidance, and truths about the life and death of schools.

Last week, in the wake of the mass suspensions, some of this city's public school leaders - students, that is - held a news conference and issued a plea. They said they needed more help from parents.

Is that such a hard thing to say? If the kids can say it, how dare the adult leaders not say it? It isn't "partisan political rhetoric," as the governor would have it, and it isn't "diving for pearls," as the mayor would have it.

It's just the truth. And those mass suspensions opened a door. We've gotten a peek inside, and if our alleged leaders don't tell the truth about the things we all see, and then exert their strength to change things, then what good are any of them?

Pub Date: 11/30/97

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