`Mr. Speaker! We'd like to talk to you'

State leaders deluged with pleas for help as fiscal issue looms large

Crisis In Baltimore Schools

February 26, 2004|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

For almost an hour yesterday, a half-dozen union leaders milled about the narrow, polished marble halls of the State House, waiting for House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

At issue was the fate of thousands of Baltimore school system employees who are facing layoffs or pay cuts to resolve a city schools budget that is spiraling out of control.

When Busch emerged from his office, a shout was heard that seemed to echo all the day long.

"Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker! We'd like to talk to you," said Glenard C. Middleton, president of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 44, which represents school employees other than teachers.

Busch and other Maryland leaders were deluged throughout the day with similar urgent requests for meetings, a brief chat or a telephone call about how the city and the state intend to resolve the school system's budget crisis.

The hope was to have an impact on an afternoon meeting at which state officials were scheduled to hammer out an agreement to help resolve a schools deficit that has reached at least $58 million.

"I'm with you guys," Busch told Middleton as he raced to another meeting. "We're trying to work with the mayor right now."

The issue of the financial crisis in Baltimore schools has muscled its way into the middle of the General Assembly's 90-day session like an uninvited guest at a dinner party. It is diverting the attention of the state's highest constitutional officers and lawmakers, who had their own financial troubles in the form of a projected state deficit to deal with. But the school crisis is urgent: Each day that passes without an agreement drives the Baltimore system deeper into debt.

The matter dominated a meeting of the "Big Seven," a periodic gathering of the top executives of the state's seven largest jurisdictions. Mayor Martin O'Malley briefed colleagues from the other jurisdictions on the Baltimore developments.

In the ornate Miller Senate Office Building across from the State House, the schools issue was hallway chatter.

Former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, who caused a stir from Baltimore to Annapolis when he resigned this week as a school system adviser, drew attention from lobbyists and others as he merely stood outside his old committee room, the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, awaiting the much-anticipated afternoon meeting.

O'Malley worked the halls of the State House, shopping his own plan to fix the school system's problems.

"I don't believe we need a receivership," said O'Malley as he waited for a moment with Busch. "I believe we can do this with a memorandum of understanding."

In a room one floor above where O'Malley was standing, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer, the former governor and Baltimore mayor, took a break from voting on contracts brought before the Board of Public Works to blame O'Malley for the school fiscal crisis.

"When the mayor starts taking on the governor and blames him for everything in the world, it can't work," Schaefer said. He said the Baltimore school system had been in trouble for years while "the city ignored its accountability."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., after listening appreciatively to the comptroller's criticism of his political rival, invited Schaefer and state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp to join him at a high-level afternoon meeting on the issue with the mayor.

But Ehrlich attended the 4:30 p.m. meeting only while television cameras were in the room for a brief opening shot. Once the cameras left and the business of the meeting began, the governor turned the discussion over to his budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr.

The governor then appeared with Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele on Channel 13 news by 5:15 p.m. -- while the meeting was still running.

Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, Doug Donovan, Michael Dresser and Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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