Schools plan raises concern

City Council shows signs of rebellion over moratorium


While Democrats across Maryland have largely coalesced behind a plan to block the state's takeover of 11 Baltimore schools, a handful of their colleagues on the City Council are beginning to rebel.

Though their opinions vary on the takeover, and the General Assembly's proposed moratorium, some council members said yesterday that they have reservations with their party's reaction.

Among the most outspoken is Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., chairman of the taxation committee. Mitchell said he believes a one-year moratorium would be useful only if it is approved in tandem with a plan to fix the schools.

"I don't know what is going to happen in that year," said Mitchell, a proponent of charter schools who said he has met with state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "Just to say, `Well, give it some time while we've got children going through those schools.' ... I say, `We can't wait.'"

Dissent over the issue underscores a rift that has begun to develop on the council between loyalists to Mayor Martin O'Malley and those who are beginning to question his administration on a range of policy issues, from taxes to police administration.

Some suggest that the council - long viewed as a mayoral rubber stamp - might be developing its own voice. Others say many of the members making the most noise are seeking to differentiate themselves as they openly flirt with the prospect of higher office.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., chairman of the education committee, said he opposes the legal battle O'Malley's administration has threatened if the moratorium is not imposed - even if that means turning the schools over to the state.

"These legal fights are not in our best interest," he said. "I don't want to see us making any more lawyers rich" with money that should be used for education.

Neither Harris nor Mitchell said they support a takeover. Instead, they question the city's response.

Last week, the Maryland State Board of Education approved the plan to seize 11 failing Baltimore middle and high schools by fall 2007 - the first takeover of its kind in the nation under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Days later, the General Assembly passed a one-year moratorium on the plan, with wide voting margins.

O'Malley indicated he will turn to the courts if a veto expected this week from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is not overridden. State officials, in turn, could mount a legal challenge if the override is successful.

Since the takeover was announced, O'Malley has characterized it as a political ploy, especially given its timing. The move came months before this year's gubernatorial election, which could pit him against Ehrlich if he wins the Democratic primary.

O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney suggested yesterday that some council members may be looking for an issue. He argued that no educator in the city is on record saying the takeover would improve the quality of education.

"In fact, they seem unanimous in saying it would be harmful," he said, noting that the city system has a plan to address the failing schools. "Sometimes when no one is taking a position it's not an opportunity to differentiate yourself, it's just a bad idea."

A majority of the council agrees with that assessment. Following an impassioned speech by Mitchell at the council meeting this week, many members stood up to offer equally ardent rebuttals.

"After he sat down, it was like the arrows were flying back at him," said Councilman Robert W. Curran. "Are there problems? Sure. But not to the extent that it's all gloom and doom. The sky is not falling. We need to turn around some of these situations, and we're working on it."

Either way, the council has become increasingly contentious in past months, especially as the election nears. For instance, six of 15 members voted against O'Malley's proposed convention center hotel last fall. Several are calling for tax cuts well beyond what the mayor proposed in the budget.

Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., has been on the opposite side of the mayor on all of those issues. Now, he is a strong critic on the school debate.

"I'm getting a lot of calls from people in my district who agree with the state takeover of the schools," D'Adamo said. "They're crying out for help. I think it's something that needs to be done. I think the time has come."

Councilwoman Helen L. Holton would not go that far, but like others, she said the debate needs to be refocused away from politics and toward helping students succeed.

"Do I believe that something dramatic is required? Yes," Holton said. "We can no longer afford to just say, `We'll do this and we'll do that.' We've been waiting for far too long."

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