Mayor signals schools upgrade

On Chicago visit, he says he'll follow Daley's lead

Fiscal, physical issues discussed

Six-month effort to focus on city's ailing campuses

April 16, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he will emulate Chicago's most visible and successful school reform by spearheading a campaign over the next six months to upgrade Baltimore's public school buildings, which need more than $1 billion in improvements.

O'Malley met here with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and his school leaders as part of an effort to educate himself on how to lead the deficit-racked Baltimore public schools toward financial accountability.

Daley "has an appreciation for the aesthetics, the grounds, the windows, the campus that is the public school system," O'Malley said. "We hope to launch a major campaign in the city of Baltimore to improve many of those things in a short period of time."

O'Malley said he would not ask the Maryland legislature for the type of full authority that Daley received in 1995 and used to rejuvenate schools. O'Malley said a memorandum of understanding between Baltimore and the state has given him the opening he needs to follow Daley's lead in rebuilding the physical and the fiscal infrastructure of the beleaguered system.

O'Malley spent all day with Daley and his top school officials, and was accompanied by Deputy Mayor Michael Enright, CitiStat director Matthew Gallagher and Carlton Epps Sr., chief operating officer for Baltimore's school system.

Daley's administrators provided blunt assessments of their efforts to instill disciplined accounting procedures at each of their schools. Test scores since Daley took over have risen, but recently leveled off.

The system, which has a $3.8 billion budget, is facing a $100 million deficit this year. Daley's policy to end social promotion of children has recently been called a failure by school experts.

"Just because the mayor has had control for nine years, everything isn't rosy," said Hosanna L. Mahaley, chief of staff to Chicago public schools chief Arne Duncan. "We haven't figured everything out."

O'Malley said one reform Daley has figured out is how to restore pride in schools by improving appearance. Chicago has invested $4 billion -- raised from yearly increases in property taxes -- into improving school buildings and their landscapes.

"We're going to do everything we possibly can between now and the start of school to improve the campuses of all of our school buildings," O'Malley said. "I would love to get rid of some of that ratty, chain-link, institutional-looking fencing that surrounds our buildings."

O'Malley does not know how Baltimore will afford major improvements. Epps said city school buildings need more than $1 billion in such work.

Epps and O'Malley said some school windows are tinted so dark that sunlight does not penetrate. "We want to let the light in," Epps said.

O'Malley's plan has entailed recruiting Baltimore's building trade unions, developers and businesses to donate labor and resources. He said he would engineer a citywide civic campaign to raise money and partners. Forming such coalitions is a hallmark of a mayor-led school system and is a lesson O'Malley learned from Daley.

"Many people will walk away from a challenge, but [O'Malley] is willing to take the challenge and say, `I am willing to do a better job,'" Daley said. "When you take the full responsibility, you're saying to the public that I firmly believe that your child's education is the most important part of life."

But politics comes into play.

Daley said the state of Illinois gave him authority over his city's troubled school system in 1995 because the Republican governor at the time wanted to see him fail.

O'Malley laughed, nodded and said the scenario was reminiscent of Baltimore, where he and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. jointly appoint the school board.

This year, Ehrlich demanded greater state control of city schools before providing state funds to help bail the school system out of its $58 million deficit. To avoid such an outcome, O'Malley and the City Council decided to provide the schools the bulk of the money with a $42 million loan.

"They said they wouldn't do it unless we gave up political control of our system," O'Malley said. "We decided to go it alone."

By getting more involved in schools, O'Malley is following the trend of cities such as New York and Boston. But doing so runs counter to Baltimore's experience, which saw former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke invite more state control seven years ago to get more funding.

"When Mayor Daley first had those thoughts [of taking over schools], all his advisers told him, `Are you nuts?'" said Michael Scott, Chicago's school board president.

O'Malley, elected in 1999 but only this year becoming involved in schools, acknowledged yesterday a bit of hesitation.

"It did take me a little bit to come to the realization that there is no more important job for a person to do as mayor than to improve schools," he said.

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