Grasmick under fire but still on the go

State schools head continues work as her support fades

December 23, 2007|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Reporter

Just before 8 a.m. on a windy morning, Nancy S. Grasmick strides across a parking lot toward the doors of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Baltimore, her black coat with fur trim flying and an aide trying to keep up.

She's greeted by the principal, Roger Shaw, and with little chit-chat she starts quizzing him on test scores, school renovations, the science curriculum. It's her first stop of the morning, but the 68-year-old state schools superintendent started her day an hour before. She stopped by the office on Baltimore Street, wrestled a Christmas shopping bag full of paperwork up to the seventh floor and had time for a phone call and a briefing by staff before getting over to Dunbar.

Grasmick doesn't have a gear for idling, and she doesn't seem to be fretting over the war she's in to save her job. Gov. Martin O'Malley has made it clear he wants her to leave after nearly 16 years as superintendent. Leaders of the General Assembly told the state school board not to reappoint her to another four-year term. But Grasmick's response is never mind the critics; she will remain totally focused on her agenda.

She won the first round of the battle to oust her when the school board offered her another contract. The legislature might try to pry her out of the post next year, but until then she has things to do, decisions to make.

Sitting across a conference table from Shaw, she gets down to business quickly. Although her face is expressionless and composed, she has the tone of a confidante asking him straightforward questions.

Shaw responds by spilling out his heart, explaining his ambivalence about leaving his principalship in January to take an administrative job as head of city high schools.

"I have been here seven years, and it has been hard for me," he says. He feels is work is unfinished at a school that he has improved drastically. She says she had the same feelings when she left a principal job in Baltimore County and worried she would lose touch with students.

"It will be very good for the system. I hope it will be good for you," she says.

Then she moves on to her questions. How did his students get such great scores on the algebra test? How come only three students from the school took the biology high school assessment last year? Has he thought about changing the sequence of science courses in high school? She thinks he really ought to consider it in his new job.

Will the renovation of the high school be finished in two years? She is concerned the public will be upset if it isn't.

By 9:15 am, she is on the road again, steering her black Ford Crown Victoria toward the building where her biggest critics work - the State House in Annapolis.

Is this woman worried? If so, she doesn't show it. She zooms into the left lane to pass a truck while dialing her cell phone, which is perched in a cradle just to the right of the steering wheel.

She wants to help Roger Shaw on two fronts, she says. She's gets her staff to connect her to a representative from the College Board on the phone. She asks the woman to please call Shaw because his teachers need to be better trained in how to teach Advanced Placement classes.

Then she calls her office to try to understand why one of Shaw's teachers is having difficulty getting certified.

By the time she gets to Annapolis she has called three other people as well, wheeled into a parking garage and walked two blocks briskly, her high-heeled boots clomping on the brick sidewalks.

She flies through the State House, up the elevator and arrives barely in time.

Her assigned seat is as far from the governor's podium as possible, among a group of about 10 Cabinet secretaries.

They are there for a news conference. A committee on which she served is handing over its report to O'Malley about the federal military base realignment, known by its acronym, BRAC. Education is a big issue for BRAC, which is expected to bring thousands of new federal workers to the state.

O'Malley and Grasmick don't appear to make eye contact, but Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown shakes her hand and thanks her.

The television lights flick on, and she is bathed in yellow light. The questions follow her. Does the recent uproar over her tenure have more to do with politics than anything else? What will happen if she leaves? Why is the governor so angry with her?

Grasmick doesn't flinch. She says "whatever the personal feelings are, we will rise above that" to do the work. "We just take it one day at a time," she says.

She has repeatedly given this line to reporters in the past two weeks, and it is perhaps the only hint that she may be measuring her work future in terms of months rather than years.

Even in the education community, which has generally supported her over the years, there are those who think she can't win this battle.

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