Despite critics, new deal for Grasmick

Md. Board of Education defies O'Malley and key members of Assembly

Contract Renewed

December 12, 2007|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN REPORTER

Nancy S. Grasmick, one of Maryland's most tenacious political survivors, won't be evicted easily from the Nancy S. Grasmick Building.

With a combination of sterling professional credentials and shrewd political maneuvering, the nation's longest- serving state schools superintendent has managed to hang on to her office under four governors.

Yesterday, the State Board of Education gave her the glimmer of a chance she might serve under a fifth. It awarded Grasmick, 68, a new four-year contract that would keep her in her job until after the 2010 gubernatorial election - if she can hold on.

The board acted in brash defiance of the state's three most powerful elected officials - Gov. Martin O'Malley, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

The three Democratic leaders can exercise broad control over the funding, governance and policies of the State Department of Education, and O'Malley's appointees will control the board come July.

But few in Maryland government would underestimate an appointee of Democratic Gov. William Donald Schaefer who managed to retain her post through eight years under Gov. Parris N. Glendening - with whom she had a frosty relationship.

Donald Norris, chairman of the department of public policy at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, said that through her 16-year tenure Grasmick has shown a firm grasp of politics and power.

"She's been very politically savvy. She's played both sides of the aisle and now she's played probably the last card that's available to her," Norris said.

That card is her political alliance with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whose appointees still constitute a majority on the state school board despite his loss to O'Malley in the 2006 election. Since his election, O'Malley has made no secret of his desire to work with a different superintendent. And legislative leaders say the governor deserves someone in that job he can work with.

Grasmick's decision to seek a new term signals an undiminished willingness to confront a sitting governor. But in contrast with her tenure under Glendening, she can expect little help from friends in the legislature.

During the 1990s, Grasmick enjoyed firm support from such titans as House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and powerful committee chairmen Del. Howard P. Rawlings and Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman. But Rawlings died in 2003, and Taylor and Hoffman have joined the lobbying corps.

Glendening tried to oust Grasmick in 1995 but backed down in the face of her strong support in the General Assembly, and then jumped on the bandwagon supporting her reappointment.

However, Glendening said yesterday that he essentially bypassed her on his top education priorities. He said she did not have a seat at the table during his negotiations with Assembly leaders over such matters as the 2002 Thornton school funding formula. Legislative leaders frequently stepped out of the meetings to seek her opinion - but she was on the wrong side of the door.

The Democratic ex-governor said Grasmick's political skills were overrated: "I would say her survival skills are very good, but political skills to me mean working with people to get things done."

Much of Grasmick's clout returned with the election of Ehrlich in 2002. The Republican governor was popular with many of the Democrats who were closely aligned with Schaefer, including Grasmick's husband - lumber dealer and political contributor Louis J. Grasmick.

During the summer of 2002, Ehrlich floated the notion of picking Nancy Grasmick, a Democrat, as his running mate.

After Ehrlich took office, Grasmick and the governor found themselves in philosophical accord on many issues - including the accountability of local school districts to the state and their mutual disdain for teachers' unions.

The governor largely left her free to run her department and appointed her admirers to the state board. She enjoyed accolades from Ehrlich and then-Comptroller Schaefer when she appeared before the Board of Public Works. In 2005, the board named the education department's Baltimore headquarters after her.

But even many of Grasmick's longtime supporters believed she overreached when in 2005 - as O'Malley and Ehrlich were preparing to face each other - she led a move to have the state take over 11 under-performing Baltimore schools.

Previously known as "Teflon Nancy" for her ability to weather crises without damage to her reputation, she found her image scratched after the Assembly overwhelmingly voted to block the takeover - and then overrode Ehrlich's veto.

Ehrlich said yesterday that O'Malley's determination to "take her out" - with support from Miller and Busch - is a direct result of that effort. He applauded the board's decision to give her a new contract in the face of their opposition.

"I would say: Kids, 1, and Mike Busch and Mike Miller and Martin O'Malley, 0. The kids won one for a change," Ehrlich said.

Clinton Macsherry, director of public policy at the Maryland Committee for Children, said that Maryland under Grasmick has made significant strides in such areas as child care and early childhood development. He said he hopes O'Malley and Grasmick "would find common ground and establish a productive working relationship."

But Richard Colvin, director of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University, said there's a reason few state education chiefs come close to Grasmick's tenure.

"It's tough for a chief because she has no natural power base. She can't enact laws. She has to go through the legislature. She can't do a budget. She has to go through the governor," Colvin said. "If they're arrayed against her, there's just no way she can be effective."

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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