Follow the money

September 03, 2004

THE DECISION this week by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to release $18 million in impounded funds to the Baltimore school system should be taken as a sign that hostilities between the state and the city are lessening. It's a sensible and welcome move.

At issue was money from the federal Title 1 program, which is set aside for the education of low-income students. Ms. Grasmick had rather abruptly announced in June that the $18 million would be withheld because of concerns that the city school system had misspent it by not ensuring that the money was strictly enough targeted on poor kids. It was a dramatic and, in our view, unfortunate action on her part. Baltimore school officials disputed her characterization.

The argument came at a tense time for the city school system, with a huge long-term deficit, an acute cash-flow crisis, and a suddenly less-than-sympathetic attitude among state education officials.

During hearings this summer in a long-running court case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, state witnesses turned with some vehemence on their Baltimore counterparts, and it looked as though a breach had opened that would be very difficult to patch - and the students, naturally, would end up taking the brunt of it.

By deciding now to release the money while negotiations proceed, Ms. Grasmick has demonstrated a renewal of good faith. The funds will make it more likely that the city system can avert another cash-flow crisis this coming year, especially as it struggles to meet higher spending requirements that were imposed by Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan after the hearings in the ACLU case had concluded. Averting a cash-flow crisis would, in turn, give both Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. less of an opening to compete for influence over the schools.

We suspect that Ms. Grasmick's advisers may have concluded she didn't have much of a leg to stand on in withholding the money; we hope this olive branch isn't intended to impress Judge Kaplan so he can then be persuaded to appoint a trustee to oversee the city schools. We prefer to believe that this is the opening move in a new era of constructive cooperation.

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