Education or politics? Glendening must decide

May 23, 1999|By Barry Rascovar

WHICH is more important to Gov. Parris Glendening -- politics or education?

He'll have a chance to deliver an answer when he decides the fate of former Sen. Frank Kelly as chairman of the Community Colleges of Baltimore County.

Mr. Kelly, whose term runs out June 30, has done a spectacular job reorganizing a three-campus institution once on the verge of collapse.

The problem, from the governor's perspective, is that Mr. Kelly is a Democrat-turned-Republican who strongly backed Mr. Glendening's rival, Ellen Sauerbrey.

Political instincts

By knocking Mr. Kelly off the CCBC board, the governor could satisfy his political instincts. But the damage to a major education institution could be considerable.

That would be a black mark for "the education governor."

Mr. Glendening has indicated to key legislators that Mr. Kelly's reappointment is in trouble. This, despite Mr. Kelly's broad and enthusiastic support from both sides of the political aisle.

"You have to remember," said one leading lawmaker who was an ardent backer of the governor last year, "that Parris is a vindictive man" and that Mr. Kelly made negative comments about Mr. Glendening during the 1998 campaign that have not been forgotten.

Yet the governor shouldn't have been surprised at Mr. Kelly's public embrace of Ms. Sauerbrey. As a Democrat in the state Senate for 12 years, he was so close to then-Delegate Sauerbrey ideologically that they formed what was known as the "unholy alliance" in the 1980s: Each crossed party lines to support the other.

One of Frank Kelly's virtues is that he says what's on his mind. He doesn't hold back. He is passionate in his feelings, too, be it opposing abortion, championing Maryland's Shock Trauma Center, demanding juvenile justice reforms, or goading administrators to improve higher education.

He stands by his friends like a tiger, be it Ms. Sauerbrey or Baltimore County Executive Dutch Ruppersberger.

His bluntness may hurt him in this instance, though.

To remove Mr. Kelly from his CCBC post would be a shocking display of partisan politics in the education arena.

The last thing CCBC needs is a governor who politicizes its board of trustees. That's what got the college in such jeopardy.

Mr. Glendening would be wise to review the 100-page report on Baltimore County's three community colleges compiled in 1997 (just as Mr. Kelly assumed the chairmanship) by a panel of non-Maryland education experts.

It is a searing indictment of incompetence and political meddling.

The panel found the three schools in Catonsville, Essex and Dundalk, with 62,000 students, in a state of "near chaos" and with a "total leadership vacuum." It recommended an overhaul, starting with the board of trustees.

The report called them "inept and uninformed, completely political, and in some cases simply malicious. . . . The major problem is clearly the board of trustees with several unenlightened, hostile members who are abetted and supported by a few, even less informed elected officials who continue to make decisions without thoughtful regard for the colleges or the public interest."

They called Mr. Kelly's task "daunting."

Yet he succeeded in forcing out troublemakers, despite their ties to powerful state senators. He pressed the three college presidents to leave so that a new chancellor, Irving McPhail, could unify the campuses.

He gained county backing for more technology aid. He mollified angry faculty members. He imbued the campuses with a spirit not seen in a decade.

Dropping Mr. Kelly at this juncture could imperil the reforms he helped put in place. He needs to finish the job.

Education reform

His party affiliation, and his support of Mr. Glendening's opponent, should be irrelevant. This is a matter of education reform, not political payback.

The board chairman gets high marks from educators for his leadership and his ability to rally a diverse faculty, administrators and students behind common objectives.

He rebuilt political bridges to county elected officials that the prior board had burned. The report praised him for being "trustworthy and action-oriented."

Mixing politics with education is dangerous. The old Baltimore County community colleges stand as examples of what can happen. Returning CCBC to those days would send all the wrong signals.

Barry Rascovar is a deputy editorial page editor.

Pub Date: 5/23/99

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