Mayor, City Council elbowed to sidelines

State has the money, is determined to call shots in politically tense crisis

Crisis In Baltimore Schools

February 25, 2004|By Ivan Penn and Laura Vozzella | Ivan Penn and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

With his city's schools deeply in debt and running out of cash, Mayor Martin O'Malley rushed to Annapolis yesterday to help state officials craft a plan to keep the system running and balance its books.

Instead, O'Malley first found himself sitting alone outside Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s office in the State House. Then, at a news conference, he stood behind the governor and pledged to stay through the night to find a resolution. But by midafternoon, O'Malley had hopped into his sport utility vehicle and returned to Baltimore.

Even as they call for more city control of schools, the mayor and the City Council suddenly find themselves watching from the sidelines as the governor and the General Assembly take charge of a problem that the city doesn't have the money to fix.

"The state is the bank in this case," Ehrlich said repeatedly during a news conference yesterday. "We're the only bank. ... We're going to get this done on our terms."

And even though he says the mayor, city officials and the state are working together to resolve the crisis, Ehrlich also is making it clear that any potential assistance Annapolis provides warrants the state calling the shots on how the school system operates - a move political experts see as diminishing the mayor's influence on the issue.

As Ehrlich takes the lead, O'Malley has to avoid looking like "a potted palm," said Matthew A. Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "Clearly, the governor would like him to look like that."

Stephen J. Kearney, an O'Malley spokesman, said the mayor and his staff were at the center of efforts to solve the school system's problems. He said suggestions that the mayor was not being included were nonsense cooked up by The Sun.

"Sometimes editors have clever ideas, sometimes editors have dumb ideas. The notion that the mayor is not in the middle of this is not one of the clever ideas," Kearney said.

But O'Malley said he was left out of such discussions as why former Sen. Robert R. Neall, a key adviser to the school system about resolving the deficit, decided to resign over the weekend. The mayor said Neall, who announced his resignation in a dispute with the school board over recommendations to the governor, told Ehrlich he was quitting before explaining to the city that there was a problem.

"I sure would like to have gotten a call from Senator Neall before he told that to the governor," O'Malley said.

O'Malley tried repeatedly yesterday to meet with the governor to resolve any differences between Neall's proposal and the school board plan that was presented to Ehrlich on Friday.

"I have not had a one-on-one to work this out with him," O'Malley said of the governor. "I would like to get a plan done today, and I would like to move forward. Whatever it takes to get us through this."

Other city officials say they, too, have been pushed aside. For weeks, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. has been offering to help Ehrlich sort out the mess.

For the first time yesterday, Ehrlich's office called to offer Mitchell a role - inviting him to stand with the governor at the news conference. But Ehrlich's staff wouldn't say what he was going to announce.

"I didn't know if he was going to announce a complete state takeover, if he was disbanding the entire school board," said Mitchell, who opted not to go because his attendance might be construed as an endorsement of a plan he knew nothing about.

Council President Sheila Dixon said she still didn't know any details of a plan - submitted to Ehrlich on Friday and rejected by him yesterday - needed to secure a $42 million loan for the schools. "I'm still in the dark," she said.

But the political stakes are highest for O'Malley because the man he is expected to challenge in 2006 seems to be stealing the limelight in the schools crisis.

That hardly looked like the case a month ago, when the General Assembly opened and O'Malley said he would not ask Annapolis for any emergency or stop-gap aid to avert layoffs of teachers and school employees.

"We need to get our own house in order," O'Malley said.

Then two weeks ago, O'Malley looked like a hero, leaping to the forefront of the school's financial crisis and offering an $8 million loan to help prevent 1,200 teachers from being fired. Days later the city announced an agreement with the Abell Foundation for another $8 million loan, cutting a $58 million deficit to $42 million.

But after the state weighed in - promising to underwrite the remaining deficit with a third loan - the mayor and city elected officials began struggling to retain control of the course of the school system's future.

The power of the purse seems to have given the governor leverage to take a more dominating role now that the state must fork over a more than $40 million loan to rescue the school system. The state already pays 75 percent of the almost $1 billion city schools budget.

The mayor's supporters say he's not at fault for the school system's financial problems because fiscal management of the schools was removed from city jurisdiction when a partnership with the state was crafted in 1997. But O'Malley is the city's chief. And Ehrlich is the state's top official. How the schools crisis is resolved could affect public perceptions of both men.

"I think that the mayor and the governor, personality-wise, politicize everything," said former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who helped to develop the schools partnership between the city and state. "It's an ongoing saga at the worst possible time."

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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