Blame doesn't stick for Md. school chief

Grasmick: Answering city critics who call her `Teflon Nancy,' the Md. official insists Baltimore - not the state - held the purse strings.

February 29, 2004|By Ivan Penn, Mike Bowler and Laura Vozzella | Ivan Penn, Mike Bowler and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

In April 1996, Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick stood before the Baltimore City Council and promised to help solve the city school system's financial and academic problems, if the city would agree to give the state more authority.

Eight years later, the city-state partnership she enthusiastically endorsed has improved academic performance. But financial management, which she singled out in 1996 as a cause for concern, has gotten much worse: a $58 million deficit. The system might be forced to cut teacher pay and lay off workers, in addition to the 800 dismissed in the middle of this school year.

And now, as Grasmick is about to be given even more authority over the ailing system, state lawmakers and critics are asking: Where was she when the red ink was pooling?

"I've been disappointed with the actions of the superintendent," said Sen. James E. DeGrange Sr., an Anne Arundel County Democrat and member of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "You can stay actively involved and be aware of what's going on. I think that's part of their role."

Some critics have gone so far as to say that at least half of the responsibility for the school's fiscal problems belongs to Grasmick, who was the state's representative in the city-state partnership.

But no one seems to be holding her accountable, at least not with the same vigor with which the school board members were compelled to submit letters of resignation.

"Someone said, `Teflon Nancy,'" said Baltimore state Sen. Joan Carter Conway. "That's what they call her."

Grasmick argues that fiscal oversight was never within her power. She said the state wanted control over the school system's finances, but the General Assembly removed that authority when the city-state partnership was formed in 1997.

The fear, she said, was that the deal would be viewed as a takeover rather than a partnership. And so the fiscal oversight remained with the city, she said.

"It's a part of city government, just as in every other jurisdiction," Grasmick said. "We had no authority over the financial management of the system. ... We got their crummy reports, two and three months late."

But lawmakers, union leaders and others say Grasmick should have pressed for reports and taken the issue to the governor or attorney general's office, if she was not getting satisfactory information from the schools.

"The state has all of this investment out there; the superintendent has to be attentive," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Northeast Baltimore Democrat. "She is not being held equally accountable in this situation. I think accountability is going to be tighter on the state side, too."

Grasmick's boss, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., stands solidly behind her. "The governor has absolute confidence in Superintendent Grasmick," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman. "Dr. Grasmick has been aggressively pursuing the reason for the budget crisis."

As the debate rages, there is growing pressure on city and state officials to find a solution to the crisis and to explain to the public what went wrong and who is to blame.

Whether anyone besides the administrators who have already been fired or the board members who have already tendered their conditional resignations will have to surrender their posts remains to be seen.

But the view of Grasmick is that she knows how to weather political storms.

In her 13th year as superintendent, Grasmick, 65, is a survivor among state school chiefs. In fact, she is the nation's longest-serving appointed state schools chief and is highly respected among her peers.

"Nancy's the quintessential survivor," said William Moloney, Colorado commissioner of education. "Her colleagues around the country view her as someone with exceptional political gifts, and those skills will serve her well, what with this political caldron bubbling over."

In Maryland, Grasmick and her husband, businessman Louis Grasmick, are longtime friends and allies of Comptroller and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Her relationship with former Gov. Parris N. Glendening was less close, but he strongly supported her reform measures.

And Ehrlich, in the early days of his campaign, approached Grasmick about serving as his running mate. After a weekend of pondering, she politely declined.

Grasmick insisted last week that she is no slacker when it comes to managing money. "I'm in my 13th year," she said. "I've overseen $4 billion in annual budgets, and I've never run a deficit, not once in 13 years."

But the legislature did remove her from the state pension board last year when it restructured the panel in the aftermath of an embarrassing scandal and poor investment performance.

In the case of the city schools, Grasmick said the state inherited the problems and needed to intervene because of poor academic and fiscal performance.

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