A galling grasp for power

December 13, 2007

The decision by the Maryland State Board of Education to reappoint state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick more than six months before her contract expires is both puzzling and galling. Even though the board has given her early contract renewals in the past, this week's action shows a curious refusal - by the board and Ms. Grasmick - to recognize that times have changed.

Such a provocative step when Ms. Grasmick has lost the confidence of Gov. Martin O'Malley and when the top two Democratic leaders in the General Assembly specifically urged against it could ultimately undermine her effectiveness. Even worse, it could lead to unwise legislation that would make the superintendent's position more vulnerable to electoral politics than it should be.

Ms. Grasmick, appointed in 1991, is one of the state's and the nation's longest-serving school chiefs, and her tenure is not without significant accomplishments. She has been a longtime advocate for accountability and assessments, even before the federal No Child Left Behind law, and she has been committed to quality education for all students.

She prides herself on being able to win over governors and board members who have been hostile to her initially. But her political savvy was seriously called into question during Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s term when it was revealed that she was on a short list of possible lieutenant governor candidates in 2002. Her attempt in 2006 to assert state control over 11 troubled Baltimore schools was blocked by the state legislature.

Mr. O'Malley, who was Baltimore's mayor at the time of the attempted schools takeover, has made no secret of his lack of trust in Ms. Grasmick and his desire to replace her. But while he has appointed five of the school board's 12 members and yesterday announced three more who will take office in July, he could not stop the current board from giving Ms. Grasmick another four-year term, also starting in July. By that time, she'll probably be dealing with an unfriendly board.

Under current law, the board can get rid of the superintendent only for performance lapses, such as misconduct in office or incompetence, which are not likely to apply to Ms. Grasmick. But in the next General Assembly session, Mr. O'Malley, state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch may push for legislative changes that would make it easier for the board to oust the schools chief.

That could eviscerate the principle of insulating the superintendent's job from electoral politics that Ms. Grasmick purports to defend. It would be better not to have such a legislative rule and for Ms. Grasmick to recognize that she's come to the end of a great run. Education in Maryland will not be well served if Ms. Grasmick continues her tenure going hammer and tongs with both the governor and the board she answers to. She should step down before she is pushed out.

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