House blocks veto on schools

Senate next to vote on overriding governor over takeover measure

General Assembly

April 09, 2006|By JILL ROSEN | JILL ROSEN,SUN REPORTER

Lawmakers painted a painful picture of Baltimore's school system and others passionately defended it yesterday before Maryland's House of Delegates voted to override Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a bill that would stall the state takeover of 11 of the city's most troubled schools.

The vote sets the stage for a showdown in the Senate tomorrow, where the outcome is in doubt because of intense lobbying by the governor and by Baltimore City officials. As tempers flared in nearly 1 1/2 hours of House debate, lawmakers on both sides of the fiercely political issue recounted the grim realities of life in the city schools but argued over the best way to fix them.

City delegates insisted that Baltimore educators, not the state, are best equipped to fix the system's deeply rooted problems.

"When will the [state] superintendent begin to listen to the people who have been right there all these years?" Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore City Democrat, bellowed into his microphone as applause filled the chambers. "Don't tell me you love my children more than I do."

A day after Ehrlich vetoed the bill, which would put a one-year moratorium on the state's move to assume control of four high schools and put seven middle schools into the hands of independent operators by the fall of 2007, the House voted 97-42 to override it.

Eighty-five votes are needed in the House to overturn a gubernatorial veto. The Senate is expected to take up the override tomorrow during the always-frenzied last day of the legislative session.

After the vote, Ehrlich called it "the worst moment for Maryland in my four years as governor" and "a stain on the General Assembly."

Listening to the emotional debate that recounted the city education system's troubled past, Ehrlich said he became even more adamant that things in Baltimore must change.

"We have to act," he said. "I was not elected to accept dysfunction and the status quo."

Ehrlich's administration has spent the past week lobbying senators, particularly Democrats, in an effort to change their votes by tomorrow.

Thirty senators originally voted for the moratorium, one more than the number needed for an override. Ehrlich predicted that the override vote would likewise be "very close."

"I'm truly hoping Maryland's Senate will do the right thing and stand up for these kids," he said. "If my veto is overridden, I'm not going to be angry, I'm going to be embarrassed for the Democratic leadership and saddened for what they've done to the kids yet again."

With an eye on the session's ticking clock, the House overrode vetoes of two other bills viewed as highly political - one that would prohibit members of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents from campaign fundraising and one to permit early voting.

The latter is aimed at the governor's top fundraiser, Richard E. Hug, who is a member of the regents board.

The override trio concludes a harried week in which the General Assembly strove to resolve a number of difficult matters before the session ends at midnight tomorrow.

In the waning days of session, the city schools standoff absorbed many precious hours, as did the question of how to ward off a looming 72 percent rate increase for BGE's 1.2 million customers this summer.

Constellation Energy officials and leaders in Annapolis inched closer to a deal last week, but major issues remain unresolved. The two sides are about $225 million apart on the price tag for a rate mitigation plan and can't agree on whether Public Service Commission members should be replaced.

Nearly two weeks ago, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced her plan to assume control of the Baltimore schools, an act believed to be the first time a state has tried to take over schools under the four-year-old federal No Child Left Behind Act.

City lawmakers and Mayor Martin O'Malley decried the move as an attempt to embarrass O'Malley, a Democrat running for governor.

Baltimore officials thanked delegates yesterday for their support.

"We appreciate the work of the House to protect progress in Baltimore's schools, and to put an end to this counterproductive election-year stunt," said O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearny. "We are confident that the Senate will also show leadership, and let educators get back to the business of teaching children."

During debate yesterday, chaos erupted on the floor after Del. Michael D. Smigiel Sr., a Cecil County Republican, made a remark many found offensive.

As Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, began to ask Smigiel, "Would you allow a school in your district to be taken over?" Smigiel interrupted, saying, "The schools in my area would never have been allowed to get to this point."

Davis and other Baltimore delegates leapt up in protest as others in the chambers loudly booed. It took several minutes to restore calm.

Smigiel wasn't the only one with tough comments for city lawmakers.

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