School takeover delay gets a veto

Ehrlich rejects nine measures on deadline day

General Assembly


Escalating the standoff between the state and city over control of 11 failing Baltimore schools, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. followed through yesterday on his promise to veto a bill that would block the state's plans to take over those schools.

In doing so, the governor lamented the troubled city school system's shortcomings and urged lawmakers to sustain his veto to do right by Baltimore's children.

"Implementation of this bill will circumvent the authority of the Maryland State Board of Education, lock children into a failed system, and may jeopardize $171 million in federal funding for all of Maryland's local school systems," Ehrlich said in a lengthy and strongly worded statement.

"How many more generations of future nurses, teachers, elected officials, and successful citizens will live lives of unrealized dreams and should we condemn to despair by our failure to act? I urge the Maryland General Assembly to allow the Maryland State Department of Education to do its job on behalf of our children."

The schools bill was one of nine the governor vetoed yesterday. Most of the rejected bills are politically charged, including one that would restrain the governor's Cabinet choices if he is re-elected and another that would prohibit members of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents from campaign fundraising.

The regents bill is aimed at the governor's campaign finance chairman, Richard E. Hug, a member of the governing board.

A little more than a week ago, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced that the state would take control of four high schools and put seven middle schools into the hands of independent operators by the fall of 2007.

Grasmick's action could mark the first time a state has tried to take over schools under the four-year-old federal No Child Left Behind Act.

City legislators and Mayor Martin O'Malley fiercely opposed the move, decrying it as political and a slap at O'Malley, a Democrat running for governor.

In the waning days of the session, Baltimore legislators pushed through an emergency bill that places a one-year moratorium on the state's action, forbidding officials from even preparing for such a takeover.

The Assembly approved the moratorium last week by 30-17 in the Senate, one vote more than necessary to override, and 100-34 in the House, where 85 votes can override a veto.

Immediately after Ehrlich vetoed the moratorium, O'Malley issued a statement assailing the governor's move and underscoring Baltimore's commitment to overriding the veto, which the House of Delegates could take up today.

"It's unfortunate that the governor has chosen to prolong this election-year stunt rather than recognizing that we should set aside political differences and let educators get back to the business of teaching our children," the mayor said.

"We will continue to work with legislators, educators and leaders from all over Maryland to ensure that we implement proven reforms to continue the progress in Baltimore's schools. And we are confident that concerned legislators will override the governor's misguided veto."

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who led the push for the moratorium, said he is "reasonably confident" that the override will succeed. Either way, he said, the city is dedicated to fixing the ailing schools.

"Not only for the schools slated for separation from the system, but for many of the schools similarly situated," he said. "If any good has come out of this, it's focused our attention on the job that's ahead of us."

Advocates for the city school argue that the beleaguered system is improving, but test scores at many schools remain low. On tests that will soon be required for graduation, students at the lowest-performing high school, Southwestern No. 412, one of those targeted for takeover, 8 percent of students passed in English and 4 percent passed in algebra.

Ehrlich said he has been meeting with Democratic senators in an effort to avoid an override, but he said it will be difficult given Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller's commitment to it.

"I have very few cards to play in these meetings," Ehrlich said.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, who appeared with Ehrlich yesterday at a late afternoon news conference, said the need for reform in the schools trumps questions about the election-year timing of Grasmick's plan.

"If not now, when? Why sentence these kids to another year of failure?" said Steele. "I invite legislators to walk in these schools, look these kids in the eye and tell them they have to wait another year."

Grasmick said she supports Ehrlich's veto "1,000 percent."

"The facts speak for themselves," she said. "We have no time to waste to enhance the opportunity for these students who have been denied a quality education."

Of the override attempt, she said, "We don't know what will ultimately happen by 12 on Monday night, but we hope that people will be thinking about the students and not about politics and partisan political interpretation."

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