No plans to leave, schools chief says

Grasmick resists O'Malley suggestion

November 14, 2006|By Liz Bowie ... | Liz Bowie ...,Sun Reporter

Maryland's long-reigning state schools superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, said yesterday that she has no intention of bowing to Mayor Martin O'Malley's suggestion that she step down from her job once he becomes governor.

"I don't want to leave," said Grasmick, 67, who has worked with three governors during her tenure as superintendent.

Grasmick doesn't have to go. Appointed to a four-year term by the Maryland State Board of Education, she has 20 months left on her contract. The governor has little direct say in hiring a superintendent except through appointments to the state school board, and Grasmick's contract will be up before O'Malley could appoint a majority of the board.

In addition, the current board rarely tangles with Grasmick and usually supports her proposals.

"She is the best superintendent in the United States, and we don't want to lose her," said Edward L. Root, board president.

Last weekend, in a series of television and radio interviews, O'Malley suggested that she should leave. The Washington Post reported that O'Malley said on WUSA-TV, "I think it would be a great time for a fresh start. ... I think in her heart of hearts, she probably knows that, too."

O'Malley did not return phone calls yesterday, but a spokesman, Rick Abbruzzese, confirmed that the mayor does believe it is time for a "fresh start" in the superintendent's office.

Grasmick said she doesn't know what that means. "When you are raising the achievement of students across the state, when you see the successes that Maryland has, I am not sure about a fresh approach," she said.

O'Malley and Grasmick had a good relationship during Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration, but it deteriorated as O'Malley tried to increase his involvement in running the city schools.

First, he stepped in to give the system a financial bailout in the winter of 2004, undercutting Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s attempt to provide a state bailout with strings attached.

O'Malley's move irritated Ehrlich and Grasmick, who has made clear her support for Ehrlich.

Then, last winter, Grasmick attempted to use the federal No Child Left Behind law to take over four Baltimore high schools and force the city school board to put seven middle schools in the hands of third-party operators.

The mayor and the city delegation to the General Assembly fought the move and won in the legislature, which put a one-year moratorium on the takeover.

Grasmick acknowledged that she hurt feelings in the process, but said she is not sorry that she, with the state board, made the decision to try to intervene. "I take pride in the leadership and stability I have offered the state," she said. "Sometimes I have had to be a messenger with a message people did not want to hear."

Grasmick, a graduate of Western High School in Baltimore, was named state superintendent in 1991 by a school board headed by Robert C. Embry Jr., who is now president of the nonprofit Abell Foundation. At the time, her ally William Donald Schaefer was governor. The superintendent at the time, Joseph L. Schilling, had decided to step down.

Embry said the school board was looking for someone who would embrace the recommendations of a panel that called for accountability and testing.

Grasmick not only embraced the idea, she has made accountability her mission in the past 15 years as superintendent. Maryland requires not only state reading and math tests in elementary and middle grades, but recently implemented high school exit exams.

Grasmick has solid support from educators around the state, including many county superintendents and local board members.

"I think Dr. Grasmick is 100 percent right when she says she has the strong and enthusiastic support of the Maryland State Board of Education," said Root, the board president. "I think it would be a travesty to cast the position of the state superintendent of schools in a political light. The superintendent is responsible for education, and that should not be politicized."

Root said while all of the board's 12 members were appointed or reappointed by Ehrlich, six are Democrats.

"In no instance, under any governor, was I contacted and put under any pressure to vote any way," Root said. The terms of three board members, including Root, will expire in June.

Root said he doesn't believe that superintendents should come and go with a change of governors, but he said the board would be happy to sit down with O'Malley to discuss any concerns he has.

While many states routinely change superintendents, Maryland is unusual in that it has only had three in the past 30 years.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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