Action is a blow to O'Malley campaign

Key element of mayor's gubernatorial bid has been progress of city school system during his term


City Schools Takeover


From a rally on the shore of the Anacostia River in Prince George's County to a meeting of educators in Ocean City, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley has long emphasized a turnaround in city schools as he has campaigned across the state.

More city students now graduate from high school, his stump speech regularly notes. More elementary students pass standardized math and reading tests than when he took office. The statistics, he argues, demonstrate improvement in a school system many once wrote off as hopeless.

But for O'Malley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, the state's attempt to seize control of 11 failing Baltimore schools - announced six months before the Sept. 12 primary - will undoubtedly affect how that message is received, especially outside the city limits, political experts say.

With polls consistently showing public education as a top issue for voters statewide, city schools will continue to be a factor the mayor must grapple with in his bid to become governor, despite the gains made during his tenure.

At two public events yesterday, O'Malley painted the proposed takeover as a "cheap shot political move," an attempt by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who is expected to run for re-election, to focus voter attention on problems the schools have faced for decades.

"This move is entirely political," said O'Malley, who also grumbled that state officials gave him no advance word, or "courtesy call," before the announcement was made. "It has nothing to do with improving the performance of our schools."

Democratic allies, including members of the General Assembly and City Council, also cast the announcement as political, especially given its timing. The takeover was made public in an election year, but it won't take effect until fall 2007.

That timing made Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat, feel as though there might be an ulterior motive, she said.

"I think there's more to it than just education reform," she said.

Del. Keith E. Haynes, also a Baltimore Democrat, agreed that the move smacks of politics and considered it a warning that the state might be attempting to take more control.

"It could be the first step to taking over the whole thing," he said. "This is the first wave."

Some city lawmakers said they fear the actions will distract from efforts to fix the schools. "It just sends such a wrong message," said state Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat.

"Why can't we just work together in solving what everyone realizes is a problem instead of just some power grab?"

Ehrlich officials denied that politics played any part in the debate - and he suggested that he has had it with people who make the allegation. The schools in question, he said, have had troubled records for years.

"I am so tired of anyone looking at the dysfunctionalities associated with the Baltimore City school system and thinking of anything other than the schoolchildren who are being deprived of their constitutional rights," he said.

"I'm tired of Grasmick vs. O'Malley, City Council vs. legislature, Ehrlich vs. O'Malley."

Education debate in Baltimore has been dominated for years by a tug-of-war between O'Malley and Ehrlich. In 2004, for instance, City Hall developed a $42 million bailout of the schools to avoid a state rescue plan that called for far greater state oversight.

Since then, the state school board has approved plans to restructure failing Baltimore schools. A federal court gave state officials significantly more control over special education.

Still, O'Malley often touts the system's progress in speeches and on his campaign Internet site. He has declared that city schools have experienced one of the biggest turnarounds of any urban system in the nation.

To back up the claim, he points to graduation rates that have increased from 49 percent in 1999 to about 61 percent last year. He mentions that most first- through fourth-graders have earned proficient scores on state reading and math tests.

O'Malley's ability to sell voters on those accomplishments in spite of this week's publicity might depend in large part on where voters live, Johns Hopkins University political scientist Matthew Crenson said.

Inside the city, some will view the state's decision as an attempt to usurp local control of the education system, Crenson said. In other parts of the state, the move might highlight underlying problems and raise questions about O'Malley's leadership.

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who will face O'Malley in the primary, sought to avoid taking sides yesterday. Instead, he blamed both Ehrlich and O'Malley.

"Ever since the Baltimore City school system went bankrupt, Governor Ehrlich and Mayor O'Malley have spent more time and money trying to blame each other than trying to fix the problem," Duncan said in a statement.

"We need to put education, and the children of Baltimore, first, not politics."

Sun reporters Jill Rosen and Jennifer Skalka contributed to this article.

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