How to tell the deficit dancers from the dance?

February 29, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

DEFENDERS OF Baltimore are having tough time as they peer into the ever-deepening sinkhole of city school finances. It's discouraging and demoralizing.

It's also more complicated than it may look to Baltimore bashers and partisans alike. Complicated first because lifting test scores was thought by the cynics to be a criminal waste of time and money. Turns out the naysayers were wrong. The scores are up.

But, of course, it's a two-part job, running the school system: You have to manage the money and the classrooms. It's like the administrators failed their MSPAP in the worst way: by failing to show up.

And now the mop-up. Mayor Martin O'Malley wants to protect the teachers' pay from threatened deficit-mending cuts, knowing many will leave if he fails. How does driving teachers away help the kids, everyone's stated objective? It's not fair. It's a bad lesson to teach young people. Someone has to find a just way to solve the problem without cutting into the bone of people who had nothing to do with the deficit. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. didn't say teachers belong to a terrorist organization, as did U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige. But he's not a big fan of teacher unions.

The complexity includes a certain perversity. For Mr. Ehrlich, the crisis may be a blessing. He's not happy about it. He wouldn't have wished it on us. But it's here and it may offer certain opportunities.

As he said Tuesday, he's the only guy with a revenue stream deep enough to handle what seems to be a flood tide. He's the only available hero.

As the price for opening the vault, he's demanding more accountability from the city, even as he presides over a government-wide deficit that runs on into the future.

What happened to accountability in Annapolis? He can ignore the timber in his own eye, arguing that someone else put it there.

Well, Baltimore can say the same thing, since school finances were at least partially in the care of the state. Nevertheless, the governor can be the scolding parent because the city has, in some quarters, a reputation for being a wayward child. Politically speaking, it's not a hand you want to overplay.

Mr. Ehrlich's bailout -- and he can't avoid authorizing one -- will take some of the heat off his friend and school superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, whose stewardship has been challenged by all of this.

The governor is demanding accountability, but many in the General Assembly are saying he should look first to his superintendent.

Didn't the state share in oversight of the schools? Ms. Grasmick has helped to get test scores out of the cellar in Baltimore, but that achievement is falling victim to the deficit.

So it's a veritable groaning board of political viands. And there's dessert!

A bailout could be good for the governor's slots legislation. Do you think he will have a tempting trade to offer Baltimore legislators when he goes after their votes? Word in the State House last week was that the trade deals are already being trundled out.

All he has to do is make these legislators believe they have no choice. The big money could make them forget the inconsistency in a map that keeps the machines out of so-called family neighborhoods -- the language used to quarantine Ocean City, Timonium and other places that don't want the machines.

Mr. Ehrlich says slots are OK for Maryland because people can be trusted to make "adult decisions" and avoid financial ruin. Apparently, that trust doesn't apply everywhere. Legislators may be offended by segmenting Maryland into family and non-family, thinking and non-thinking zones.

They could have trouble explaining that to their constituents, so the big money bailout might help.

It's the best proof so far this year of an old Annapolis saying: Sooner or later in every legislative session, every bill is connected to every other bill. It's a version of "Scratch my back, and I'll scratch yours." Or, this time it's Baltimore, but the next financial Isabel could blow your house down.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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