Mitchell joins mayoral field

Councilman makes schools chief issue in upcoming campaign

January 20, 2007|By John Fritze | John Fritze,Sun reporter

Baltimore City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., who formally announced his candidacy for mayor yesterday on a former drug corner in Upton, called for a complete takeover of the city's public schools -- striking at an issue that is likely to play a major role in this year's mayoral race.

Mitchell offered few specifics on how city schools should be managed, but he said the current city-state partnership does not work and argued that placing education fully under the mayor's purview would, if nothing else, increase accountability.

"For too long, the state has pointed fingers, blaming the city for its educational woes and the city has pointed fingers at the state," Mitchell told a crowd of several dozen bundled against the wind. "When they all point fingers, nothing gets done."

Mayors in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles have moved to seize control of their local school systems, with varying degrees of success. Legislation to change the arrangement in Baltimore has failed in past sessions of the General Assembly.

Currently, the governor and the mayor jointly appoint the nine-member city school board from a list prepared by the state education board. But neither Gov. Martin O'Malley nor Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon has the power to control the system's budget or to pick its chief executive. Because those powers are held by the city school board, no elected official is accountable for the system's actions, Mitchell said.

Mitchell, 39, is a three-term City Council member who represents the 11th District -- which includes Bolton Hill, Reservoir Hill, Mount Vernon, downtown and a sliver of Federal Hill. He is one of several officials who have either announced or are expected to announce their candidacy for mayor. The Democratic primary in that race is slated for Sept. 11.

Mitchell's formal announcement came a day after Dixon was sworn in as mayor replacing O'Malley, who became governor on Wednesday. Dixon held the city council president's post before she began to serve the remaining time in O'Malley's mayoral term.

Mitchell's announcement, held at Pennsylvania Avenue and Laurens Street, drew a number of public officials, including Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.

"Keiffer Mitchell was born to be mayor of Baltimore," Gansler said. "He has the heart and the soul to create a more prosperous future for this city."

In addition to changing the management structure of city schools, Mitchell said he supports expanding charter schools and creating "citizen schools," staffed by volunteer teachers, that would give students a place to congregate after hours. He said he will appoint a commission to make recommendations on how to deal with crime, including the city's homicide rate.

Many more are expected to announce their candidacy to run against Dixon, who has said she will seek a full term this fall. In addition to Mitchell, Del. Jill P. Carter, Comptroller Joan M. Pratt, former high school principal Andrey Bundley and Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway Sr. have said they will run.

A spokesman for Dixon said last night Mitchell's position would not change her previously stated views. During an interview earlier this month, Dixon said that she also favors more local control, but that this year is too early to pursue the change.

Dixon has said she intends to ask the General Assembly for increased school construction dollars this year but has not yet said how much she is seeking. O'Malley's state budget, unveiled Thursday, calls for $400 million in school construction spending statewide.

Carter, who represents Northwest Baltimore, has also been outspoken on changing the city-state partnership and has drafted legislation in past sessions to elect members of the board, rather than allowing them to be appointed by others. But Carter said that changing the structure of school management will only partly address the problem. "We need to find a way to make sure that we have the money going straight into the classrooms," she said.

The current structure was created by the General Assembly in 1997 to avoid a lawsuit that argued the state was not providing enough money to pay for city schools. City officials did not want to lose control of the schools but also needed more state funding. State officials wanted more control of education for their increased investment.

The resulting compromise became a major issue in last year's gubernatorial campaign. During the campaign, O'Malley suggested he would support more local control of schools, and a spokesman last night said the governor stands by that position.

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