As school crisis loomed, O'Malley focused on crime

February 14, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

SO 3,824 OF 5,226 Baltimore teachers told Mayor Martin O'Malley where he can cram his idea that they should all take a 3.5 percent pay cut.

Jolly good show!

Do the math, Mr. Mayor. That's nearly 75 percent who said they would run the risk of a layoff rather than be punished for the financial problems created by those who were in charge of the system while a $58 million deficit mounted. That's an overwhelming majority who've said you have some nerve asking them to take a pay cut when they have, for years, paid out of their own pockets for school supplies, without reimbursement. That's nearly 4,000 people who've said loudly and clearly that they would not be taken for fools.

The mayor might respond that he's not responsible for the crisis either, that the fault lies with his predecessor, Kurt Schmoke, for tying the hands of future mayors by giving the state a hand in selecting school board members who choose the system's chief operating officer.

But O'Malley would only be partly right. His culpability may be minimal, but not insignificant.

What all Baltimore teachers -- and principals and parents and students -- might be pondering is whether O'Malley should have given departed school Chief Executive Carmen Russo the same public, profanity-filled tirade he directed at State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy. Let's refresh a few memories.

Go back to three years ago, when Jessamy dropped charges against Officer Brian Sewell, who was accused of planting drugs on a suspect. Although crucial evidence was lost when someone broke into a Baltimore Police Department office in Baltimore County, O'Malley still wanted Jessamy to proceed with the case. When she dropped it, noting a lack of evidence, the police, not her office, lost. O'Malley demanded she show some guts and "get up off her ass."

Fast forward three years, to last month, when Sun reporter Tanika White wrote a story about the school crisis in which O'Malley reflected on Russo's leadership. According to White, "O'Malley said Russo was so focused on improving test scores that she overlooked the system's business operations, even when he pressed her for information about the budget or human resources.

"O'Malley called the period of Russo's leadership the `North Avenue freeze-out.'" One sentence later in the article, O'Malley said, "I've had very frustrating moments the last few years just trying to get basic numbers out of my school system."

About 4,000 Baltimore teachers -- and no doubt the 1,400 who voted for O'Malley's proposal -- must be wondering why we're just hearing that from the mayor. And we should all ask why Jessamy got a vulgar directive and why Russo -- who ran "O'Malley's" school system -- apparently got only a "Gee whiz, Carmen, can I get a little information here?"

Why wasn't the mayor in front of television cameras, telling us that Russo was holding out on him? Where was he when Russo was paying her driver $100,000 a year to chauffeur her around Baltimore? Why wasn't our mayor saying "Get out of the back seat and drive yourself, Ms. CEO"?

A bit of public anger and a few choice words from O'Malley three years ago might have forced some accountability and averted the crisis of today. Instead, we got a mayor railing against a state's attorney's office he didn't run and saying little about the doings at North Avenue -- headquarters for "his" school system -- that he had at least co-responsibility for.

There'll be speculation about why the mayor reacted differently in the two cases, and the usual wrong ones will surface. Some will point out that Jessamy is black and Russo white, and drop subtle hints that O'Malley is racist. But that's not who our mayor is, nor is that his history.

O'Malley gets fired up when he's passionate about things. Ending police corruption, fighting crime, lowering the city's homicide rate: All those were O'Malley's passions. He ran his campaign on them and rode right into City Hall as a result.

I'm not implying that educating Baltimore's youngsters isn't his passion. But the mayor's children don't attend Baltimore public schools. He has less of a dog in that fight than he did in the one against crime. He fell asleep when Russo was running the show at North Avenue to focus on getting his police commissioner, the departed and now-indicted Edward Norris, to lower crime.

The mayor now has to direct his passion toward the North Avenue mess. Perhaps he can come back with another proposal: a pay cut for all city employees.

He can start with his own salary.

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