Mayor recalls tenure's highs, lows

The Schmoke Legacy

November 22, 1999

In an extensive retrospective on his career in City Hall, outgoing Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke lists his proudest accomplishments -- and most distressing disappointments.

Candid and analytical as always, Mr. Schmoke was almost as eager to volunteer verdicts on sub-par performance as he was to chronicle achievements.

The pluses he cited include a first-of-its-kind cyber-neighborhood in which new houses will be equipped with computers and access to the Internet; A little-known literacy program that empowers thousands of Baltimoreans and their families; and hundreds of housing units built by small contractors using the Community Reinvestment Act.

On the downside, Baltimore's mayor acknowledges he failed to come to grips soon enough with the crisis in the Baltimore schools.

Here is the first edited installment of a two-part interview conducted by Sun editorial writer C. Fraser Smith.

Sun: What are you most proud of?

Schmoke: Pleasant View Gardens. It's a major accomplishment that we were able to implode these high-rise public housing units and replace them with nice neighborhoods. No place else in the country have they been able to do that. A lot of people have knocked them down, but very few have planned with the community to rebuild something that's as nice and attractive.

And on the West Side, Lexington Terrace will be an electronic village. All the houses will be hooked up to the Internet and everyone will get training and a personal computer subsidized by the Housing Authority. It's our effort to provide decent housing and to address the digital divide (the technology gap between rich and poor). I've been talking to a national foundation about doing this for all the renovated public housing that's coming on line (in the nation).

Sun: What else goes on the accomplishment list?

Schmoke: I'm very proud of our literacy program headed by Maggi Gaines: Helping the functionally illiterate gain literacy skills and get better job skills. They've been laboring and doing an outstanding job, helping with storefront centers and raising money. That, I think, has contributed to improving the quality of life of a lot of families in Baltimore, people who were able to get better career opportunities as a result. There are thousands of them. You can't see them, but they're there.

Sun: Mayor-elect Martin O'Malley spoke during the recent campaign of the Community Reinvestment Act as if it had never been used in Baltimore. It has been used, hasn't it?

Schmoke: We just opened a batch of new houses on Covington Street on Federal Hill, $200,000 and $250,000 units built using the Community Reinvestment Act. This (quasi-governmental financing) group took risks the banks wouldn't. We've put up a range of housing for low- and moderate- and high-income people. We have hundreds of housing units that were developed through this financing corporation. It's a project we did early on and kept plugging away at. It's not high profile, but for small contractors it's how they stayed afloat during the recession.

(Without waiting for another question, Mr. Schmoke moved to the subject of his failures - what he knew and didn't know cominginto office and how that hurt him. )

Schmoke: My biggest failure is that I didn't have a well-thought-out plan for schools that I got everyone to buy into right away. We could have spent a decade working on it. That's what we needed. We went pillar to post on each new fad. The fad of the year or the month.

There are pockets of excellence in the schools, but there were pockets of excellence when I came in. The School for the Arts. City and Poly and the Dunbar Middle. All those things were there. And they remain among the best programs around. But I wouldn't say that excellence is the rule in our elementary and secondary schools in Baltimore. That for me is my biggest failure.

Sun: Is the city-state partnership on city schools promising at all?

Schmoke: Now, yes. For most of the time I was mayor, it was just trench warfare. There was a gotcha mentality. They were waiting for you to screw up and then punishing you. There were more punishments than rewards.

Sun: You've taken a lot of the responsibility.

Schmoke: It was our fault, too. When you're involved in litigation (over alleged inequities in school financing) you don't see the other guy's view. I thought (former Baltimore Mayor and then-Gov. William Donald) Schaefer and state schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick) didn't understand. They wanted to take over. And then one day a light bulb went off. ... The state people -- and it was absolutely reasonable -- were talking about outcomes: Show me your outcomes, they were saying.

Sun: When did you realize you were not speaking the same language?

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