Ehrlich, O'Malley sparring over schools may be Round 1

March 11, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

WAS THAT a risky thanks-but-no-thanks Martin O'Mayor sent to Bobby Governor the other night, or the first shot in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign? Is this precious? Do we live in interesting times? Is this shaping up to be a battle of political frat boys, or what?

Food fight!!

It's Gilman vs. Gonzaga, Princeton vs. Catholic, Tigers vs. Cardinals, Kendel vs. Katie.

It's Slots vs. Believe.

A guy from Arbutus, "Gateway to Halethorpe," takes on a guy from Rockville, "Queen City of the I-270 Corridor."

I'm getting this image of Martin and Bobby in a great fight, with Nancy Grasmick as round-card girl. And in Bobby's corner is that great old cut man, William Donald Schaefer. And Martin has his father-in-law, Joe Curran, fanning him with a towel.

Pardon my reveries.

I'm a fan of fights.

I like backyard wrestling.

I'm a connoisseur of transparent egotism. I have a masochistic fascination with the decline of idealism, too.

Strikes me that the Baltimore schools crisis has become just what I could have predicted it would become two weeks ago, except that predicting it would have been too predictable.

We have just witnessed the first smoky skirmish between the young ambitious Democratic mayor of Baltimore and the young ambitious first-Republican-governor-of-Maryland-since-Agnew.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., playing Big Man and pretty much adopting 92,000 Baltimore children as his own, offered the city a $42 million bailout of the city schools. It was a loan.

Ehrlich wanted control of the schools, which might have been fine, except for the part about maybe tearing up a union contract with the city teachers to force extravagant cuts in the system's operating budget. He lost me there.

Too bad.

The state's advance of $42 million would have helped the school system preserve the gains it has made, in terms of student achievement, in recent years. More, Ehrlich's support would have constituted Big Think: a genuine embrace of the kind of regionalism that has been sorely lacking in political leadership here. It would have been Ehrlich's way of telling his suburban and rural constituencies that a stable and improved Baltimore public school system eventually will lift the quality of life in the entire state.

Ehrlich looked like he was on his way there.

But demanding accountability is one thing, breaking a deal with teachers, engaged in the great challenge of getting Baltimore's kids up to speed with their better-off suburban peers, quite another.

The teachers didn't create this mess. The teachers helped make the improvements that justify further investment in the schools. Picking a fight with them risked doing permanent damage to the system - at the least, making it hard to hire good teachers; at the worst, a strike.

The state should have taken over without the heavy hand on teacher pay.

Martin O'Malley, hovering in the wings with his hat in his hand and his ego aching while Ehrlich got mug time on TV, decided the city didn't need the state's help after all, especially if it was going to come with those classic Republican, anti-organized labor conditions. So O'Mayor persuaded - some might say "snookered" - the City Council into dipping into the city's rainy day fund to loan the schools bailout money.

And now the city's bond rating is threatened, supposedly, and that could lead to the city paying more for credit, and if you're a city taxpayer you worry about how that might boost property taxes.

"We aren't stupid," the mayor assured us.

Just how risky is the risk?

When the city pulls $42 million out of the rainy day fund there would be about $14 million left in the bucket, according to one of O'Mayor's spokesmen, Stephen Kearney. "The fund was at $16 million when [O'Malley] took office," he says.

The city is going to issue $45 million in bonds in May for school construction and other projects, Kearney says. If New York were to drop Baltimore's bond rating one point, from A-plus to A, then the city would pay only $44,000 more in annual interest on the May issue than it would have with the present rating.

So maybe, on that count, O'Malley's correct - he's not stupid.

But if the fix doesn't work and the schools continue to bleed green - the way the city homicide numbers keep bouncing up again - then what?

This is O'Malley's baby. He could soar like an eagle out of this mess, or he could crash and burn. He could look like a political genius who boldly took responsibility for a big problem that wasn't his doing, or he could look like an irresponsible egomaniac who put the city's finances at risk to keep his 2006 gubernatorial opponent from looking like the hero.

Say what you will about O'Mayor, he stuck his neck out. Ehrlich, on the other hand, stepped back from the brink of Big Think, quickly took his goodie bag and went home.

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