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Feud over schools heats up

Comments from Annie: The school system is clearly the helpless victim of a heated, political, election-year battleground. In Maryland the stakes are obviously less about children or learning or teaching and more about ego and politics.

Feud over schools heats up

Ehrlich refuses to reappoint city board chairman, 2 other members backed by O'Malley

By Gadi Dechter and Doug Donovan
Sun reporters

August 17, 2006

Escalating the battle over control of Baltimore's schools, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. refused yesterday to reappoint the city school board chairman and two other board members recommended by his gubernatorial opponent, Mayor Martin O'Malley.

The city schools are a major issue in the campaign, with each side blaming the other for the system's shortcomings.

"Given the troubling performance of the Baltimore city Board of School Commissioners and the continued failure of the school system, the board members eligible for removal must be replaced as quickly as possible," Ehrlich said in a letter to Edward L. Root, chairman of the state school board.

In justifying his decision, Ehrlich referred to what he termed the board's "recent troubling and undisclosed actions." Among them, he said, were the board's decision to reduce the passing grade from 70 to 60 for key subjects "without adequate public comment" and the system's "indefensible policy on social promotion."

O'Malley has defended the board's decision to lower the passing grade by saying that it would bring the city schools in line with others around the state that use 60 as the passing mark.

Yesterday, O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney described Ehrlich's call for the school board overhaul as a "political stunt at the expense of Baltimore's students."

Kearney accused the governor of hypocrisy, saying that school board members were approved first by the state school board - which Ehrlich controls - and then by the governor.

Root said last night that he had not seen the governor's letter, but learned about it from state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

He said that when the state board meets Aug 29, it will consider Ehrlich's recommendation to reopen the application process for city school board members.

The terms of city school board Chairman Brian D. Morris, Vice Chairwoman Jerrelle Francois and Diane Bell McKoy expired July 1. In accordance with a 1997 partial state takeover of a faltering city school system, board members are appointed jointly by O'Malley, a Democrat, and by the governor, who is a Republican.

Ehrlich's call to replace the board members is unlikely to have any immediate effect. Under the rules of the city-state partnership, if the mayor and governor do not jointly approve or oppose reappointments, the sitting board members can stay on indefinitely, Root said.

Morris said last night that he has no misgivings about his leadership and no intention of stepping aside. "I intend to serve the students and city of Baltimore as long as I am in a position to be a member of the school board," said Morris, an O'Malley ally.

In addition to the three members up for reappointment, there are two vacancies on the nine-member school board. The vacant seats will remain empty until the mayor and governor agree on candidates that have been vetted by the state board, Root said.

He said eight candidates are ready for their consideration.

Observers could not recall yesterday another instance in the nine-year history of the city-state partnership that a candidate for reappointment had been rejected. Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry, a former head of the city and state school boards, described Ehrlich's action as "highly unusual."

Meanwhile, the feud between Ehrlich and O'Malley over city schools has raised questions about the future of the city-state partnership that governs Baltimore's public education system.

The relationship had begun to fracture before Ehrlich's move yesterday. In March, the state used the federal No Child Left Behind Act as the basis to take control of 11 failing city schools, but the effort was thwarted by the legislature. Last year, a federal judge gave the state control of a significant part of the city system's operations because it had failed to provide required services to special-education students.

On Monday, the City Council introduced a resolution by Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. calling on state legislators to return control of Baltimore schools to the city.

The resolution fell one vote short of the 12 needed to pass, but it will be debated further in the coming months. Mitchell said yesterday that Ehrlich's "finger-pointing" was further evidence that the city schools ought to be removed from the political arena.

Last night, Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who has frequently been at odds with the O'Malley administration, said Ehrlich's criticism of the school board was understandable.

"I think it's unfair to request that all three members not be [re]appointed, but I do think it's worth consideration whether Brian Morris should be reappointed," said Harris, who has criticized the decision to lower the passing grade.

Meanwhile, O'Malley's position on whether to maintain the current configuration of the city school system or give more control to City Hall has shifted in recent days.

On Monday night, after the council agreed to discuss Mitchell's idea, O'Malley said in an e-mail statement that he would "like to restore full oversight responsibility to the people of Baltimore for their own school system."

The "state is both incapable under the best governor and unwilling under the malevolent governor we currently have," O'Malley said of the state's role in managing the system.

But on Tuesday, O'Malley would not say that he fully supports dissolving the partnership. Instead, he offered ideas on how to give City Hall more control. He said he would prefer that the mayor and council appoint the school system's chief executive officer and all or a majority of the school board. He said he would be open to compromise on allowing the governor's office some appointments.

When asked how he would adjust the city-state partnership to give Baltimore more authority if he were elected governor, O'Malley said his campaign has not formulated such a plan and that he would have to work with the General Assembly to devise one.

He said the school system would be better run if its officials were accountable to local residents but that he would not want the state to abdicate its funding responsibilities.

Political observers said O'Malley is in a tough spot politically because he has to maintain two different positions - one as mayor, one as would-be governor.

"There's an old political science saying that 'Where you stand depends on where you sit,'" said Matthew Crenson, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University. "If you sit in the mayor's office, you want the city to have control. If you sit in the governor's office, you want the governor to have control."

Crenson said Ehrlich hasn't devised much of a plan either. "Ehrlich says he'll fix the schools immediately, that he'll do whatever it takes. 'Whatever it takes' is not a plan," Crenson said.

Zach Messitte, a political science professor at St. Mary's College, said O'Malley has to respond as mayor not as a gubernatorial candidate. If O'Malley's campaign comes out with a specific plan for Baltimore schools, he said, other school districts will want to know where their plans are.

"People realize there is a shared responsibility for schools," Messitte said. "You can't lay the responsibility of the schools solely at [O'Malley's] feet."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com doug.donovan@baltsun.com

— Gadi Dechter and Doug Donovan
The Baltimore Sun


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