In the dock

August 06, 2004

HAS NANCY S. GRASMICK been watching too much television? On Wednesday, as she was giving testimony during a hearing on the Baltimore school system's performance under two long-standing court orders, the state school superintendent suddenly swiveled in the witness stand away from her own lawyer and began giving a speech to the two judges on the bench. Who, she asked, is in charge of these troubled schools? "I think there needs to be a trustee for the system - from the court. There needs to be a final authority. It's just an untenable situation."

Now, if this really had been a TV show, Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan would have slammed down his gavel and announced, "The court finds for Ms. Grasmick; I hereby appoint ... " etc., etc.

But nothing of the sort happened. The other lawyers in the courtroom expressed an understandable unhappiness with being ambushed. The testimony went on. Finally, Judge Kaplan asked if the state superintendent planned to submit a petition in writing. At this point she began backpedaling adroitly from the idea. She just wanted to get a debate going, she said.

A couple of things are worth pointing out. One is that Ms. Grasmick is actually a defendant in the lawsuit before Judge Kaplan. Another is that, though she tried afterward to pass off the proposal as a sort of off-the-cuff conversation starter, she conceded that she had talked it over beforehand with the state Board of Education; she just hadn't bothered to mention it to the city school chief, Bonnie S. Copeland, or any of the other class-action litigants involved in the cases. That's a peculiar way of doing business.

A third point is this: The state has been trying to show that the city school system is hopelessly mismanaged. On the surface, that seems like a slam-dunk argument: bills not paid, grants not received, chaotic and nonsensical maintenance schedules. But Ms. Grasmick argues that the problem stems from the loan of city money by Mayor Martin O'Malley this past spring. That loan, she says, gives the mayor too much influence over the school system and leaves Ms. Copeland reporting to too many masters.

Allow us to point out that the city school system's problems go back a lot further than last spring - back, in fact, to the era of the city-state partnership that was supposed to set everything right. Ms. Grasmick had a central role in that partnership, though not, as she points out, a dominant one. But a key problem was that the school board - appointed with Ms. Grasmick's involvement - completely fell down on the job, which is why the mayor had to step in last spring.

As of today, the city schools have a financial plan that could yet achieve fiscal stability, though some raise legitimate arguments about its more draconian features. There has been nearly complete turnover on the school board. It seems only prudent to give the system a chance now to get itself on its feet. Ms. Grasmick says incremental solutions are not enough - but court-appointed trustees have a less than stellar record at other systems around the country, and they are by definition undemocratic.

An interesting point raised at the hearing was that for four years the state was in noncompliance with a 2000 order by Judge Kaplan to provide adequate funds to the city schools. That deprived Baltimore of at least $800 million, and perhaps as much as $1.4 billion, or even more. And yet now we have the state's top school official blaming the mayor for what's wrong, and asking the court to intervene. If life was as neat as a TV script, it might even be believable.

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