Veto killed, takeover of schools halted


Senators waste little time reversing Ehrlich's veto


Legislation aimed at Ehrlich aide upheld

General Assembly


Maryland senators reversed Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s veto of a bill to delay the state's planned takeover of 11 failing Baltimore schools, casting a decisive vote yesterday on the final day of the legislative session and shifting the future of thousands of schoolchildren back into the hands of city officials.

The House had already approved an override, so the Senate action means the state is prohibited from intervening in the schools' management for a year.

"I've never seen people celebrate so much over complete dysfunction," Ehrlich said last night at a news conference.

The school veto was one in a series of highly partisan votes lawmakers took yesterday, meaning the Assembly session ended as it began 90 days ago, with a Democrat-dominated push to override the governor's vetoes.

Despite sharp protests from the Republican minority, the General Assembly also overrode vetoes of two other high-profile bills. The legislation will prohibit political activity by members of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents and specifies where voters can go to the polls a week before Election Day.

The vetoes came on a day when the attention of lawmakers was divided: They were also consumed with finding a way to ease the impact of 72 percent BGE rate increases.

Partisan tensions were high throughout the three-month session, but with a healthy economy and higher-than-expected tax revenues, the Assembly completed the only task it had to - passing a budget for the next fiscal year - with relative ease.

The legislature also adopted a stem-cell funding proposal and tougher limits on power plant pollutants, leaving time in its final hours to debate utility rates and city schools management - issues unforeseen when lawmakers convened in January.

The schools issue dominated much of the final day, however, and lobbying was frantic on both sides until just minutes before the vote.

Mayor Martin O'Malley stood at the top of the State House steps, approaching senators as they entered the building to make their decisions.

"Thank you for defending our kids' progress," he told Sen. Ralph M. Hughes, a Baltimore Democrat.

Then, as senators filed into the chamber, O'Malley, schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland and other Baltimore officials took seats front and center in the balcony to watch as lawmakers, with little discussion, voted 30-17 to override Ehrlich's veto - one vote more than required to restore the moratorium.

"What the Senate has shown with this overwhelming veto show of support is that the people of Baltimore are making progress with our school system," O'Malley said, after leaning over the railing and signaling his thanks to those below.

"We are by no means satisfied by where we are," he said, "but we are glad we're not going to have the skids pulled out from under our kids."

The vote capped a turbulent two weeks that began when state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced her intention to assume control of four failing high schools and entrust seven middle schools to contractors by fall 2007.

Baltimore lawmakers said they smelled a political ploy. And with the Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden at the forefront, they pushed a bill through the Assembly that would stall the state's plans for one year.

McFadden, a longtime city school administrator and a Baltimore Democrat, made a final plea early yesterday before his party's caucus.

Everyone in the Baltimore education community - from the parents to the teachers to the students themselves - knows the abysmal test scores can't continue, he told his Senate colleagues - please let Baltimore try to fix it.

"We still have work to do," he said. "This is the end of the beginning of a process."

Added Copeland: "We already know what to do, and we're delighted the override gave us the opportunity to do it."

Last month, Grasmick called for a takeover of the 11 schools, saying their persistent poor performance demanded unprecedented action - the first of its kind under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Grasmick said yesterday that she felt good - not about the result but that the problem was now purely Baltimore's.

"Now the pressure's off me and on them," she said.

She said the legislation threatens to "unravel" the state's 15-year-old school accountability system, which predates the federal act.

McFadden said he was confident the city's efforts would bear fruit in the course of the year.

"If we are wrong and voters find we've done something counter-productive, we will have to answer for that," he said. "I don't mind sticking my neck out for the kids."

Further frustrating the administration, the Assembly spent the rest of the day overriding more of Ehrlich's vetoes.

First came an override of a bill allowing collective bargaining for state employees. Then another that prohibits University System of Maryland's Board of Regents from campaign fundraising - legislation aimed squarely at Ehrlich campaign finance chairman Richard E. Hug.

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