Drawing the line

Dunbar High: State delegate should not be instrumental in decision about school's principal.

January 26, 2000

KIDS lose when schools become political playgrounds, when political self-interests take precedence over the three Rs.

That's the bottom line in the current spat at Baltimore's Dunbar High School, where state Del. Hattie N. Harrison is asking schools chief Robert Booker to oust new principal Joyce Jennings.

Dr. Booker, the school board and Mayor Martin O'Malley need to remind Delegate Harrison that the 1997 state school reform law was intended to excise petty politics from city schools, not to have every official with a few votes and an opinion running them.

That won't likely be an easy point to make here. For years, Dunbar has been more than a school to Ms. Harrison and other public officials in the surrounding East Baltimore neighborhoods. It's a community center and political base, too. Ms. Harrison's city job is anchored in the building. Del. Ruth Kirk works in the cafeteria. Activism and patronage politics seem as much a part of Dunbar as its vaunted basketball team.

But there's an important line between constructive political support and meddling.

And what else could be at play here but politics? Ms. Jennings has barely been on the job six months. She came with a strong city schools track record and the support of Dr. Booker and the school board.

No, things have not gone perfectly since her arrival. A scheduling nightmare this fall created chaos in Dunbar's halls for a few weeks, for example. But Ms. Jennings is just getting started.

Delegate Harrison and others are upset that Ms. Jennings "locked them out of her decision-making process," and hasn't expressed proper support for the school's community. In short, she hasn't paid proper respects to the right people. What on earth does that have to do with education?

It's time to get past that kind of heavy-handed political interference. Even the fact that Dr. Booker agreed to investigate Ms. Jennings behind these complaints sends the wrong message.

He ought to waste no time sending the right one: Politics may rule Annapolis, but only children's best interests carry sway in city schools.

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