An education in the unsavory

February 29, 2004

ROBERT R. Neall has played a clever game of it so far. Hours after the financial adviser to the Baltimore school system quit in a fit of pique, there he was, sitting at the governor's elbow as talks began to work out a rescue plan. He's the deficit hawk, and as the crisis develops and intensifies things are going his way. But the time for clever games is drawing to a close. The people of Baltimore need to see that those who would straighten out the schools' finances are being candid ; they would be ill-served by a behind-the-curtains putsch that seizes control of their system.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley have tentatively agreed to a deal that would establish a new, smaller school board in exchange for a state loan to keep the system going. The details are now being worked out -- and there appear to be more loose ends than Mr. Ehrlich was letting on when he announced the deal Thursday night. Yet a final agreement is still imminently possible, and it would be an important step toward recovery. But there are pitfalls along the way, and most of them are on the governor's side of the bargain -- and that brings us back to Mr. Neall.

He has been pushing hard for a pay cut for the city's teachers. The motivation is apparently to show that everyone must bear some of the pain. But if the governor insists on legislation that would allow the new school panel to rip up the teachers' contract before the end of the school year, that, according to the mayor, will be a deal-breaker. Good for Mr. O'Malley. The city does not need to risk further demoralizing the teaching staff or inviting a walkout. Enrollment is sure to drop by next September. Mr. O'Malley believes that the means can be found to allow the system to finish this school year and then reduce staff through attrition or layoffs. Again, this is the right approach.

The proposed makeup of the new school board is particularly troubling. The clear idea is to provide strong and tough financial oversight, and no one could disagree with that. Smaller is likely to be better -- but three members might be too small. Mr. Ehrlich has talked about naming Mr. Neall and Nancy S. Grasmick, the state school superintendent, to the board. It's hard to understand how Ms. Grasmick could find the time to give the city's business her full attention; she certainly hasn't done so up to now, despite her statutory role in the city-state partnership. But it's even harder to understand how the residents of Baltimore could accept a school board dominated by people who don't even live in the city.

There's an assumption that Baltimoreans are incompetent to run their own affairs and that only the state can provide the sort of fiscal prudence and probity that are necessary. Yet, Marylanders have been treated this week to allegations of sloppy bookkeeping, lax oversight and the chummy awards of no-bid contracts at the Maryland Stadium Authority, and to the continuing spectacle of the state's own financial woes, beginning with a nine-figure deficit.

Clearly, the state does have a role in helping the city school system. But a backdoor takeover is not part of it. Typically, when states take absolute control of local districts a period of destructive turmoil follows; this would be almost certain to happen in Baltimore, especially if Mr. Neall is effectively at the helm. We have great respect for his financial acumen and his credibility in the legislature, but we fear he loses sight occasionally of the students who are at the heart of the school system. Picking a fight with the teachers serves little purpose.

A restructuring plan should respect the city's role. It must include clean lines of accountability and meaningful checks and balances. That means transparency. What has been going on in Annapolis so far is almost the opposite of that. The governor skips out of meetings as soon as the TV cameras leave. His finance chief, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., says the time for public input is later, after the deal is done -- an attitude that Michael Hamilton, head of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, correctly labels "a matter of disrespect."

Mayor O'Malley has limited authority over the current school system, and may have less in the future. But it is time for everyone to understand that he has a legitimate political role to play -- that of the public advocate. Those are the children of his constituents whose future is at stake. The appointment of a new governing board, even under the best of circumstances, is not the end of the problem, but the beginning of a new chapter. It will be critically important for the mayor -- and for all city residents -- to keep demanding a say in the process and straight answers from those in charge.

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