Schools chief an issue in accord

Role of Grasmick appears to be final sticking point in talks to aid city system

Mayor and governor disagree

But O'Malley indicates willingness to let her join panel to break impasse

March 05, 2004|By David Nitkin and Laura Vozzella | David Nitkin and Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

The role state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick should play in a management overhaul of the debt-ridden Baltimore City schools has emerged as the final sticking point as city and state leaders complete negotiations on a $42 million loan.

State and city leaders have agreed that a five-member panel to be called the Baltimore City School System Authority should run the city school system for the next 16 months, devising a way to solve a cash-flow crunch and eliminate an accumulated $58 million deficit.

Two members would be appointed by Mayor Martin O'Malley, and two would be chosen by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But the fifth member is undecided. Ehrlich wants Grasmick in the spot; O'Malley wants state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, a former delegate from Montgomery County.

"The last one is a bit of a rub," the mayor said.

But O'Malley indicated that he would reluctantly go along with Grasmick to break the impasse if members of the city delegation would agree. The mayor planned to work the phones late last night to try to get those leaders to agree to Grasmick.

Some General Assembly members have balked at Grasmick, saying that as the state's top public schools official, she bears much of the responsibility for the fiscal problems.

After the creation of a city-state schools partnership in 1997, Grasmick should have been responsible for monitoring financial statements and raising warnings, they say. With 13 years on the job, Grasmick is the nation's longest-serving appointed schools chief and has survived several administrations.

"She figures in prominently," House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday. "I think the question is whether she's a voting member, or an ex-officio member [who does not cast a vote]. It's better for the superintendent to be at arms-length distance."

Because the General Assembly must pass legislation in the next few weeks to alter the city schools' management structure, the views of Busch and other legislative leaders carry much significance.

Ehrlich has said he wants a new management team that can provide accountability before he offers a $42 million state loan that would help the school system through its cash crunch.

"The governor very much believes that Superintendent Grasmick would be an appropriate choice for that panel," said Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

Grasmick and her supporters have said that the city retained financial control after the partnership, part of an arrangement to avoid the appearance of a state takeover.

Ron Peiffer, a spokesman for the State Department of Education, said Grasmick would take whatever position that is negotiated.

"She said she really doesn't care how it lands right now," Peiffer said. "She has no vested interest one way or the other. She will do whatever she is asked to do."

While the wrangling continued yesterday in Annapolis, tales of extreme want and waste in city schools emerged at a public hearing in City Hall.

Students described schools without toilet paper, bathroom soap or calculator batteries. Amid that deprivation also came an example of squandered resources: a teacher with no students.

Joy Green, a certified English teacher at W.E.B. DuBois High School in Northeast Baltimore, told the council that she hasn't had anyone to teach since last month, when she was targeted for a layoff.

The layoff never came to pass, but Green's students were parceled out to other classes, including some math courses for which they were not academically prepared, she said. She has not been assigned any new students, and proposed transfers to other schools have not come through, she said. "I'm just sitting there," she said.

Green's situation came to light during a four-hour hearing to consider a bill and resolution before the council. The bill would authorize the city to lend $8 million to the school system. The resolution would call on school officials to submit monthly financial reports to the city.

But the hearing was dominated by testimony from dozens of students, whose complaints ranged from bathrooms without doors on the stalls and libraries without librarians to outdated textbooks -- and no books at all. One student said a test had to be delayed two weeks because the school had no paper.

Eric Manns Jr., 16, a junior at Edmondson-Westside High School, said he did not get a text for his physics class until just before Christmas break. He got his text for art class on time, but it was published in 1977.

After one Edmondson-Westside student said there were half as many computers as students in his media class, Councilwoman Catherine E. Pugh recalled visiting an elementary campus with a room full of machines that were "not even hooked up," she said.

City schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, who attended the hearing with Grasmick, said the system would try to do a better job of distributing computers.

With so much focus lately on school finances, students need to be assured that things will improve, Councilwoman Pamela V. Carter said. She recounted how her daughter, who graduated from City College three years ago, would not go to the bathroom all the school day because there were no doors on the stalls. Students said that was still the case at many schools.

"They need to hear this will no longer go on," Carter said.

Sun staff writer Jamie Stiehm contributed to this article.

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