School salvation plan inspired by poetry, pigskin

March 14, 2004|By C. Fraser Smith

MAYOR MARTIN O'Malley's decision to shun the cash from Annapolis was a case of man biting dog. Isn't Baltimore a ward of the state? Isn't it a helpless ne'er-do-well of a city? Isn't it legally obliged to beg in Annapolis?

No to all of the above, says the mayor.

OK, but taking on the school system's debt as he did last week seems a foolhardy decision to many, a move driven by emotion, something out of the stick-figure playbook.

In the early days of his mayoralty, Mr. O'Malley responded to what he regarded as clueless judges by sending them how-to manuals, mockingly illustrated. People loved his boldness. The tactic suggested a man unfamiliar with the concept of payback. He's moderated a bit.

But now he has bailed out of the state's bailout, choosing to stay with his leaky ship rather than accept "onerous" conditions: too much state oversight among them. The move could sink him.

He knows it. He may even relish it. If he pulls it off, he could be the governor-elect. If he doesn't, he'll be Martin Who. It turns out that he clasped the asp of deep deficits to his breast at the recommendations of an eclectic group of inspirational leaders: Ravens football coach Brian Billick, the German poet Goethe and Taylor Branch, author of Parting the Waters and Pillar of Fire, two titles that coincidentally seem evocative of the mayor's current challenge.

Mr. Billick came into play because he has solved big, divergent problems in his profession. He came to Baltimore as an offensive wizard, later transforming himself into a master of defense - or of finding others with that mastery. He found ways to cope with the talent available. It's not the plan, the mayor thinks - referencing the coach and his own problem - it's the people.

Blindsided - as was the state - by this schools crisis, the mayor thinks he can solve the problem now that he knows more about it. He would apply his famous city-state, computer-driven accountability system. He wanted to introduce that concept a year or so ago, his aides say, but the politics of North Avenue (school system headquarters) wouldn't allow it. The turf protectors are neutralized now, so he will have an easier time putting his team in the game.

From the gridiron, the mayor turns next to Goethe's Faust, in which he wrote, according to a liberal translation, that tough problems become easier to handle once decisive action is taken.

Whatever you can do or dream, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

The fear is that the deficit pit has no bottom. If the bills keep coming in - as they have been doing - the city's rainy day fund may be pitifully inadequate. It is risky enough to think of getting the $42 million repaid. If the amount gets bigger, the magnitude of the risk increases. If, in time, the layoffs and other cost-cutting go forward, he can find a balance and pay back what has been borrowed. Needless to say, this brave commitment is fraught with uncertainty.

Mr. O'Malley's decision was surely motivated by many things: his feeling of responsibility for the schoolchildren; the thought of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as his gloating protector; former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's taunts as the negotiations proceeded; and the hurt pride of his city, which chafes under the state's attitude - however much the city school administrators may be faulted.

The mayor, Baltimore's parents, teachers and school children may have chosen pride over success. People will do that when pushed too far. They may also find strength they didn't know they had. Already, many people who vote are praising the mayor for defending their honor.

Finally, the mayor's councilors say he credits something Taylor Branch told him: Don't ever get separated from the emotional side of your personality. That side will keep you connected to people. The numbers are important. They have to balance. But there's an equation beyond numbers.

Former Mayor Schaefer used to call it people and caring. Worked for him.

Correction

My apologies to Janice Piccinini, whose name I misspelled in last week's column.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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