Political motivations creep into City Council's actions on schools

August 16, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

The title of Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.'s resolution pretty much explains it all: "Request for state legislation - Baltimore City Public Schools - Ending the City-State Partnership."

Mitchell was one of the few City Council representatives who was against the city-state partnership from the beginning. That was in 1997. Councilman Nicholas D'Adamo said he was also against it. A third was Lawrence A. Bell III, then the president of the City Council, who fought a gallant but losing fight to have Baltimoreans retain control of their school system.

Bell was rewarded for his willingness to stand up for Baltimore's citizens - and for competently running the City Council for four years - by getting kicked to the curb in the 1999 mayoral race that saw Martin O'Malley come to power. Mitchell and D'Adamo are still on the council, but Monday night D'Adamo seemingly abandoned Mitchell, his one-time ally.

Out of 15 council members, D'Adamo cast the only "no" vote. City Council President Sheila Dixon was absent. Vice President Stephanie Rawlings Blake ran the meeting but abstained from voting, as did Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. When the votes were counted, the resolution, which called on state legislators to end the nine-year-old partnership, fell one vote short of being adopted.

"I don't think we need to play politics with the kids' future, and that's what you saw last night," D'Adamo said yesterday. "Because the leadership changes in Annapolis, all of a sudden it's OK for the city to take the schools back?"

Lest anybody misinterpret his meaning, D'Adamo gave Baltimoreans and all Marylanders the courtesy of being blunt: Some of those supporting the resolution had not schools in mind, but the re-election campaign of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"The Ehrlich campaign is picking up momentum," D'Adamo said. "People are seeing his ads about city schools and they see they're true. [City Council members] are trying to address his ad on city schools."

To appreciate what D'Adamo was driving at, you had to be there.

At one point, Councilwoman Rikki Spector arose and proudly proclaimed, "Everything we've accomplished has been in spite of the state. If it weren't for our mayor and City Council, I don't know where our teachers and schools would have been this past year." Councilman Robert W. Curran also gave credit for progress in Baltimore schools to the mayor and the City Council.

It was shameless politicking, as D'Adamo indicated, but that's OK in Baltimore. This is the town where shame came for one specific purpose: to be dragged into the streets at high noon on a sunny day and fatally shot between the eyes.

Boy, have we been accommodating.

"They tried to embarrass the governor and make the mayor look good," D'Adamo said. "It looked like a campaign script for the mayor."

Nine years (and $254 million in state money for city schools) later, D'Adamo obviously feels now is not the time for the city to go back on the deal, for a number of reasons.

"If the state is going to give us money, then the state should have a say in how that money is being spent," D'Adamo said. "I don't think we're in a position to say `no' to any outside help."

Harris is in the same ballpark as D'Adamo, but perhaps a few bleacher seats away.

"Nothing would be more gratifying to me than for us to take ownership of city schools," Harris said. "[But] we're not in a position to take ownership."

Harris said that with the schools having an acting chief executive officer, a new chief operating officer and several school board members about to step down, now is not the time for a return to city control of schools.

"I want to make sure we have our house in order," Harris said. "Right now, we don't have our house in order. I'd rather be slow and right than fast and wrong."

For Mitchell, the bottom line is accountability. With a city-state partnership, Mitchell said there's been a nine-year "blame game" in which each partner has accused the other of falling short. There is one distinct advantage of having control of Baltimore schools returned to the city.

"You know exactly who to blame," Mitchell said. "You know where the buck stops."

Mitchell added that he wasn't bothered about the city looking as if it reneged on terms of the partnership.

"The whole purpose of the partnership was the infusion of a whole lot of cash," Mitchell said. "But if we go back on the deal, we go back on the deal. My whole issue is accountability."

Mitchell acknowledged that a few of his colleagues might be motivated by politics, and even said the state should also get some credit for progress in Baltimore schools. That's candor we don't usually hear during an election year.

Quick! Does anyone on the City Council or in the mayor's office want to take the blame for the 11 failing Baltimore schools the state wanted to take control over?

I thought not. I don't remember who it was who said something like, "Success has a thousand mothers, but failure is an orphan." It was probably the same person who said, "I don't vote. It only encourages 'em."

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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