`Old deluder' plays prominent role in Grasmick-O'Malley drama

December 23, 2007|By C. Fraser Smith

When I started out in the newspaper business, I spent many an hour with the North Attleboro, Mass., Board of Selectmen. An invisible partner in their deliberations, I learned, was "old deluder Satan."

The selectmen were town fathers elected to handle the town's business - not including the school system's budget. That bit of important public business was left in the hands of educators.

The reasoning? If politicians were allowed to get their hands on the money, "old deluder Satan" would be free to lead them away from the best interests of the children. A state law establishing these boundaries was called the "old deluder Satan" law.

I thought it was a mildly comical, quaint and typically New England way of dealing with the realities of life. Good fences make good neighbors and all of that. What the law meant to address was not Satan but politics. Lawmakers apparently thought Satan and politics were evil twins.

Whatever they thought, I think now that the effort to separate the two was doomed to fail. Politics is part of life. It seeps into everything. At its best, it's even-handed problem-solving. At its worst, it's self-serving and tawdry. But if we don't like what political leaders do, we can remove them at the ballot box.

Which, of course, brings me to the struggle between Gov. Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. Old deluder politics is all over this one.

You have to hide your head and muffle the laughter when people start talking about keeping politics out of it.

Little late, I would say.

Mrs. Grasmick was appointed to the job 16 years ago by former Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Was politics involved in that selection? It was not a question of competence. She has shown herself to be quite competent in many posts. But other skilled administrators might not have had the political entre she had.

She kept the job despite efforts by Mr. Schaefer's successor, Parris N. Glendening, to remove her. Then Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wanted her as his lieutenant governor running mate. She said no.

But she was widely seen in political circles as his helpmate. With plenty of reason, she and her school board set about taking control of 11 Baltimore schools. This on the eve of the 2006 gubernatorial election campaign, pitting Mr. Ehrlich against then Baltimore Mayor O'Malley - whose plan to run for governor against Mr. Ehrlich was hardly a secret. Any remnant of an impermeable barrier between politics and education must surely have been shredded at that moment.

But no. Mr. O'Malley won the Governor's Mansion and soon thereafter, if not immediately, began thinking about how to get himself a new school superintendent. Friends of the combatants looked for a graceful way around the certainty of an unpleasant collision. Mr. O'Malley had won, they said, and deserved to have a superintendent loyal to him and in tune with his ideas. Mrs. Grasmick reportedly turned them all aside.

Those who fret about the intrusion of politics in education must consider the reality: Mayors and governors are held accountable for the performance of schools. How can that work if they're at war with those who run the schools?

Mrs. Grasmick now faces an ouster effort by the Democrat-dominated General Assembly. They might try to make her appointment subject to confirmation by the state Senate or make her service subject to the "pleasure" of the board. In that circumstance, she could be shown the door for political reasons.

It seems likely the Assembly will not rush to protect her. Most recently, it turned back her effort to take control of the city schools. Her prospects for surviving would not appear to be good, though a protracted legal battle could ensue.

Others have observed that a spat of this sort will almost certainly result in collateral damage - with schoolchildren as the casualties. Hunkering down in the bureaucracy, she defies the will of the voters. They chose Mr. O'Malley, after all. How can she be effective in such circumstances?

You can't keep politics out of these affairs any more than you can eliminate grudges or ambition or stubborness.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.

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