Schools could be a political peril for O'Malley

2004 bailout now means he bears responsibility

July 04, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

When the Baltimore City public school system teetered toward bankruptcy last year, Mayor Martin O'Malley helped engineer a City Hall bailout to avoid a state rescue that would have cast his Republican rival, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., as the system's savior.

Since then, the Democratic mayor has praised every sign of progress, from achievement to building repairs. After state test scores showed moderate improvements by city pupils last month, he declared: "This is no less than one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America."

In the past week, however, the claims of progress have run afoul of events beyond his control, serving as a reminder of the school system's beleaguered condition. The state school board approved plans Wednesday to restructure 22 failing Baltimore schools by next academic year - the most in Maryland - and a federal judge moved a step closer to giving the state extensive control over the city system's special-education services.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Monday's editions about the Baltimore schools incorrectly described the appointment process of state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. She is selected by the Maryland State Board of Education.
The Sun regrets the error.

With statewide polls consistently showing that public education ranks among the top concerns for Maryland voters, city schools could become one of O'Malley's most vexing problems as he is expected to mount a campaign for governor in 2006.

Within hours of U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis' order and the restructuring announcement by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, O'Malley's critics gleefully seized on the chance to point out the obvious contradictions to the mayor's proclamations of progress.

"The mayor is coming late to this issue of a school system that's been in crisis for a number of years," said Scott Arceneaux, campaign manager for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, the mayor's likely rival for the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nomination. "I think education is going to be crucial" in the election.

Audra Miller, spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party, said O'Malley has been more interested in becoming governor than in trying to fix city schools. She and Arceneaux pointed out that the mayor only became actively interested in schools while campaigning for a second term in 2003, and during last year's financial crisis.

"He snubbed state aid so he could look like a white knight," Miller said. "All Martin O'Malley has is his dubious rhetoric and political spin."

Last week, the mayor reiterated his claim that the city's schools are mounting a turnaround, one he has argued is the quickest in the nation. But he also tempered his earlier comments.

"It is a turnaround that is still very much in progress, and it's an uncompleted work," the mayor said. "It's not contradictory to say that we are in the middle of one of the greatest turnarounds of a public school system ... and that we still have a long way to go. Both are true."

Five years ago, not a single grade's majority of students scored proficient in reading and math tests, he said. This year, a majority of the first- through fourth-graders in the city school system earned proficient scores.

"That is rapid progress," he said. "We continue to make quicker progress in turning around a big urban school system than any other big city in the nation."

He said restructuring plans were drawn up by city schools officials as required by the No Child Left Behind Act and that they were not forced upon the city by the state. In at least three schools, entire staffs will be replaced.

O'Malley reiterated his position that he hopes the federal judge will allow the city school system to maintain control over special education and said governance by "judicial decree" is not fair to the voting public, who should be allowed to hold schools officials accountable.

"I do think that we should not try to disenfranchise the people of our city from their children's education," O'Malley said. "Nancy Grasmick may believe that more state control is what's needed. There are others who believe that more local control is what's needed."

The mayor's aides and political observers suggested that politics might be behind the two negative announcements, both spurred by Grasmick. She asked the judge to give the state broader control over special education, and she made the restructuring announcement.

Grasmick is appointed by Ehrlich, and she has been rumored to be on a short list to run with Ehrlich as a lieutenant governor candidate. Ehrlich's lieutenant governor, Michael S. Steele, is expected to run for U.S. Senate.

"After a year in which the objective measures are moving in the right direction ... yet again, we're hearing from Nancy Grasmick that everything is bad," said O'Malley spokesman Stephen Kearney. "It's the political equivalent of the boy who cried wolf."

Deputy state Superintendent Ronald Peiffer said Grasmick was only doing her job when she asked the federal judge to provide the state with "broader authority" over the city schools and that Maryland needs to take a "much more aggressive role" in management of services for disabled students.

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