Nancy S. Grasmick has adeptly survived several governors - both Republican and Democratic - in her 16 years as the state's education czar, but a political battle appears to be developing over whether she should be reappointed for another term.
Grasmick told the State Board of Education recently that she would like to remain in her job when her contract expires June 30, and the board was set to vote today in private session on whether to reappoint her.
But yesterday, legislative leaders sent a sharply worded letter urging the board to hold off until after July 1 - when a board with new members appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley could make the decision. The letter said it would be inappropriate for a lame duck board to take the vote.
"Our office received an indication that certain board members were going to seek to embarrass the governor by having a closed-door session to reappoint Dr. Grasmick to a four-year term," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said yesterday, in explaining the decision to send the letter.
Two years ago, Grasmick and O'Malley, then Baltimore's mayor, feuded over her attempt to take over 11 of the city's failing schools. O'Malley has made it clear that he does not want her to continue as state superintendent. But the governor does not appoint Maryland's school superintendent - the state school board does. Currently, only four members have been appointed by O'Malley, a minority of the 12-member board. In July, O'Malley will appoint three new members and have a majority.
Grasmick, who makes $195,000 a year, asked the board recently to reappoint her, said board member Blair Ewing, despite the fact that she could be working for new board members who might be antagonistic to her educational philosophy.
"I don't know if other people's perspective is like mine, but I do know there are reasons to think that the time has come for a change," said Ewing, who was appointed by O'Malley in July. "I think the need is for somebody with some different views about education."
Ewing said he thought the state's "slavish devotion to high school assessments" should change.
Dunbar Brooks, president of the board, said the board would go into executive session after its regularly scheduled meeting today to discuss the issue. He said he didn't know whether the board would take a vote on renewing Grasmick's contract. "The board will be discussing the letter and its implications in its executive session," he said.
Grasmick has garnered a national reputation among state school superintendents and is well liked by the current U.S. Secretary of Education, who gave her strong support in her fight with O'Malley. Grasmick has one of the longest tenures of any state superintendent in the country.
Appointed in 1991, when William Donald Schaefer was governor, Grasmick has staunchly pursued a policy of making schools more accountable by instituting statewide testing from third grade on.
A few years ago, the board adopted a policy in executive session, which stated that Grasmick had to inform them this month whether she wished to continue in the job for another four-year term.
The practice is common among local boards whose members want to know whether to conduct a search for a new leader before the term expires.
In addition, Maryland regulations say the board should appoint a superintendent by July 1, and some Grasmick supporters have argued that Maryland regulations clearly are intended to take educational policymaking out of the political process by having the superintendent appointed by the state board, rather than the governor.
But Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch argue in their letter that there is a common law principal in Maryland "prohibiting lame duck appointments."
"While the board may be within its legal right to act at this time, it seems illogical that the statute intends for the current board to preappoint a state superintendent who will execute the policies of a potentially different board," the lawmakers wrote. If this practice continues, no new governor would ever have any input into the selection of the superintendent, they said.
The legislators end the letter by offering to introduce legislation that could clarify the appointment process.
Ewing said he would like to delay a decision on the appointment. He said he and other board members appointed last July have not participated in an evaluation of Grasmick's job performance.
A spokesman for the superintendent said she had no comment.