The bill, please

March 05, 2004

FOR DAYS NOW, the mayor and the governor have been on the verge of a deal that would provide a state loan to Baltimore's public school system in exchange for a new oversight board. Since the beginning of the week, the Maryland legislature has been expecting a bill that would put the deal in writing. Our advice to Martin O'Malley and Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.? Don't blow it now.

The only way either politician can look good coming out of this is with an agreement that makes them both look good. So let's get on with it.

There has been, apparently, a fair amount of give and take since Mr. Ehrlich announced Feb. 26 that a framework for a deal had been agreed upon. Much of what we have learned about the negotiations has been encouraging. Here's what a final package should include:

No layoffs or pay cuts for the remainder of this school year. The governor had at one point insisted that legislation must give the new board power to circumvent the teachers contract, immediately. But the most important thing is to get through to June without further turmoil in the system, and Mr. Ehrlich has reportedly given way on this. Chances are, such powers will be given to the new board as of July 1; Mr. O'Malley believes that by then the system will have been able to cut costs sufficiently to make such an imposition on the employees unnecessary.

A board of five members, which makes much more sense than the three that Mr. Ehrlich had originally favored. The current school board is appointed by agreement of the mayor and governor, and that hasn't proved altogether satisfactory. On the new board, some members would be picked by the governor and some by the mayor. Each would be specifically accountable. This would make conflict and political maneuvering more likely - but that's not necessarily bad. Conflict brings problems into the open.

A board with a majority of city residents. This should be a no-brainer.

An advisory role for the state superintendent of schools. The State Department of Education has certain responsibilities for oversight of, and appeals from, local school systems. It would be inappropriate for the state superintendent to be a member of the new city board - but her expertise, and that of her staff, could provide a significant contribution if made available to the city.

The bill, when it comes, will have to be treated as emergency legislation - which means it will need a three-fifths vote to carry. That's a steep hurdle, and it makes it all the more important for Mr. O'Malley and Mr. Ehrlich to find a way to present a united front to the legislature. The House and Senate leaders want to avoid a floor fight or opposing amendments that could sink the whole effort. It's up to the governor and the mayor: Everyone who cares about Baltimore's students is counting on them to come through.

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