O'Malley's rivals seize on issue

Ehrlich, Duncan revive attacks on mayor over schools' woes

Politics

June 20, 2006|By JENNIFER SKALKA | JENNIFER SKALKA,SUN REPORTER

Word yesterday of Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland's departure gave new life to a favorite campaign refrain of the candidates running for governor against Mayor Martin O'Malley.

City schools are a mess, say Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, a Democrat. The mayor should not be trusted with the state's schools if management of Baltimore's struggling system has been poor, they say.

"Under the O'Malley administration, it's another link in a long chain of inconsistent leadership," said Ehrlich campaign spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver. "It's certainly difficult to ask constituents to trust statewide that which you cannot control locally."

Scott Arceneaux, Duncan's campaign manager, echoed that theme, saying, "Dr. Copeland's abrupt and inexplicable departure signals a school system under siege and belies all of the mayor's braggadocios, posturing and cherry-picking of statistics."

Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for O'Malley's campaign, said the mayor believes city schools have fared well under Copeland's leadership. He criticized Duncan for using Copeland's "personal decision to move on after years of substantial progress in the school system" for his own political gain.

"The facts here speak for themselves," Abbruzzese said. "We do have challenges, but it doesn't mean substantial progress hasn't been made under Dr. Copeland's leadership."

Abbruzzese said problems with Baltimore schools could be placed at Ehrlich's doorstep, too, blaming him for not providing the state's full promised financial commitment as outlined in a 2002 reform initiative commonly called the Thornton plan.

"Dr. Copeland's leadership resulted in improved test scores and financial solvency for the school system, despite the governor's failure to fully fund Thornton, and his best efforts to thwart the school system's progress at every turn for political reasons," he said.

O'Malley is running in the Democratic primary for governor against Duncan, who has made education his top campaign priority.

Ehrlich has also clashed with the mayor over schools, including earlier this year when state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick proposed an outside takeover of 11 city middle and high schools. O'Malley led a legislative effort that resulted in a one-year moratorium on the takeovers.

If Ehrlich and Duncan have their way, Copeland's departure - the latest unflattering news coming out of the school system - will affect the gubernatorial race, at least in the short term.

O'Malley is not responsible for Copeland's hiring or the school system, which is governed by the city school board. The board is made up of appointees selected jointly by the mayor and the governor, with the authority to select a chief executive. The city schools receive the bulk of their funding from the state.

In the past, however, O'Malley has taken action that made him more visible in school affairs. In early 2004, he spurned a state offer of $42 million to cover the schools' budget deficit, in exchange for the city giving up some control. Instead, the mayor offered money out of city reserves to cover the shortfall, earning praise from parents and teachers worried about outside control.

On the campaign trail, the mayor promotes the system's gains in test scores on the campaign trail.

Donald F. Norris, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said he expects Duncan and Ehrlich to continue to paint a picture of a city school system in chaos, an effort aimed at eroding support for O'Malley.

Their criticisms are aimed at voters outside Baltimore, not those in the city, who are more aware of the school system's pervasive and long-standing problems.

"I've got to believe that it will have some impact, probably not in Baltimore City, but where it counts is outside the city," Norris said.

O'Malley issued a statement yesterday thanking Copeland - who will leave her post in July after three years - for improving the system's graduation rate and elementary school test scores.

"I'm grateful for her service and wish her well," the mayor said. "And we will work with the school board and her successor to continue the school system's progress."

jennifer.skalka@baltsun.com

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