Biting the hand

March 09, 2004

A BILL TO SETTLE the financial crisis of the Baltimore public school system was finally ready to go to the General Assembly yesterday. It would have traded a $42 million loan for a temporary new control board dominated by the governor. The bill was far from ideal - but the events that led to its being derailed were astonishing and regrettable.

A hastily conceived plan approved by the City Council last night did the damage. It would provide $42 million to the school system from the city's rainy day fund, of which $34 million would have to be paid back by July 1. It would remove the need for state money, but it also would draw the rainy day fund down to dangerously low levels.

That could have been a "Plan B" for the city if the state deal fell apart - but when Sen. Nathaniel McFadden told the state Senate last night that help from Annapolis was no longer needed, he made "Plan A" a long shot indeed. Who among those legislators who have been grumbling about a "bailout" of the mismanaged city schools would want to vote for state intervention now? It was understandable - if unfortunate - when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. washed his hands of the bill at the last minute.

Yet state assistance for the city schools was predicated on one unassailable fact: It's in the state's own interest. Maryland already has recognized a need to increase, by many millions of dollars, its subsidy of schools in the city and elsewhere, through the Thornton law. Why? The state has recognized that it cannot pretend it is isolated from Baltimore's woes.

If the city's schools run out of money and descend into chaos, it could take years to repair the damage. More important, it would intensify the city's unfortunate role as a drag on the rest of Maryland.

The problems inherent in educating Baltimore's schoolchildren are problems that belong to the whole state. Throughout this episode, there has been too much "they" and "them," and not enough "we" and "us."

Legislators from the city have, of course, their own concerns. They were loath to sign on to a plan that allows a Republican governor to appoint three members of a five-member board. They were worried about the eagerness of such a board to cancel the teachers' contract this summer. They feared that the interests of the children would be sacrificed to a desire to impose an unnecessarily exaggerated fiscal discipline.

But the city is going way out on a limb if it thinks it can rescue itself now. And where are the necessary long-term reforms to put the system back on a solid footing?

The state bill was the result of protracted good-faith bargaining by the governor and the mayor, in consultation with the leaders of the state House and Senate. All Marylanders - including Senator McFadden and the members of the City Council - should understand what it could still accomplish for Baltimore.

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