School & District Management

Looming Race Fuels Sniping Over Baltimore Schools

By John Gehring — September 13, 2005 6 min read
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When Mayor Martin O’Malley of Baltimore showed up to give a pep talk to several hundred new teachers preparing to start their jobs last month, he brought up the “P” word along with the three R’s.

The telegenic mayor—whose gubernatorial ambitions in 2006 could be fulfilled or fail depending in part on the state of his city’s schools—told the teachers packed into a steamy high school auditorium to ignore the political winds swirling between City Hall and the governor’s office in Annapolis.

It was a message perhaps easier to give than to heed, as contention between Maryland’s Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and the Democratic mayor over a range of issues in the Baltimore school system has intensified.

Both men have a direct say over the city’s schools. Under a legislative compromise reached in 1997 to settle a school funding lawsuit, Baltimore’s nine school board members are each jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor. A school district previously operating as a branch of Baltimore’s city government became the shared responsibility of many masters. At the time, supporters of the bipartisan compromise hailed the change as a landmark solution.

But now, with the governor’s race looming on Maryland’s political horizon, the city and the state are caught in an increasingly cantankerous relationship, quarreling over how best to meet the challenges faced by a 90,000-student district where most students live in poverty and nearly 40 percent of freshmen don’t graduate.

While the Baltimore schools and the state have a long history of acrimony and litigation over school finance and management concerns, some people watching the situation say the current climate is as bad as it was in the early 1990s, when the district sued the state for increased funding.

‘Massive Failure’?

In July, a federal judge overseeing a 21-year-old lawsuit brought by advocates of special education students found the city schools’ efforts to improve special education services had resulted in “massive failure.”

An emergency order handed down by the judge gave the Maryland Department of Education control over special education in the district. Mayor O’Malley lashed out at the ruling with as much fervor as Gov. Ehrlich mustered in praising the decision.

“You cannot run the city school system, or especially the complicated task of special education, from a bench, albeit a federal bench,” the mayor told The Sun newspaper of Baltimore. “The governor and his administration seem to be obsessed with getting in the way of public school progress. It would be nice to have a reliable partner in the state, but the absence of one is not an excuse for our not making progress ourselves.”

Not long after the court decision, Gov. Ehrlich made a rare appearance at a meeting of the Maryland state board of education. The state’s first Republican chief executive in 36 years showed off posters highlighting poor achievement in the Baltimore schools and touted the state’s desire to help turn around its failures before board members and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who is widely rumored to be a potential running mate for Gov. Ehrlich in his bid for a second term next year. (His 2002 campaign partner, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, is expected to run for the U.S. Senate.)

Ms. Grasmick, who was appointed by the Maryland board of education in 1991 and holds no formal party affiliation, has dismissed critics who point to politics as a factor in the state’s desire to intervene in Baltimore’s schools.

Mayor O’Malley and Gov. Ehrlich also clashed last spring over who should bail the Baltimore district out of a $58 million deficit in its $914 million budget.

At the time, the district was still reeling from the firing of 1,000 school employees, a decision Bonnie Copeland made in the fall of 2003, soon after she was hired as the district’s chief executive officer.

After Mr. Ehrlich rejected a financial-recovery plan submitted by city school leaders, he offered to give the district $42 million to keep it solvent. A deal seemed imminent.

But as the governor began pushing for more state control over the district’s finances in return, Mayor O’Malley abruptly pulled out of the deal, arguing it was more important to have local control. The city would come up with its own $42 million loan. (“City, Not State, to Lend Money To Baltimore Schools,” March 17, 2004.)

Staying Focused

A panel convened in the summer of 2004 by Ms. Grasmick to evaluate the city-state partnership found that the legislative compromise had failed in some cases to identify clear lines of responsibility for management of the district. The situation has, according to observers, further contributed to the bad blood between the city and the state.

“Children should not be part of a political football game,” said Bebe Verdery, the education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “Both the city and the state have a role in ensuring the students get a quality education. I expect them to work more collaboratively than they have over the last couple of years, or the children will suffer.”

Baltimore is just one of 24 school districts in Maryland—all the rest countywide systems—and Baltimore leaders feel singled out for attention from the state.

“We all want better things for our students, but at the same time, you really begin to question why some decisions are made,” said Brian D. Morris, the chairman of the Baltimore school board. “It’s politically advantageous for some to point to the shortcomings in the system.”

Ms. Copeland says she refuses to allow such concerns to distract her.

“The mission is to stay laser-focused on teaching and learning for all students, and keep politics out of our office,” said Ms. Copeland, whose contract was recently renewed through 2008. “We are here to serve children, not fight political battles.”

Baltimore has, in fact, seen some improvement academically. While Mayor O’Malley has tempered earlier comments about the city’s schools making “one of the biggest turnaround stories of any urban school system in the United States of America,” the system did post gains in almost every grade on the Maryland School Assessment Exams released in June 2004.

Officials had been concerned that the financial instability in the district would adversely affect students’ academic progress. Gains were also reflected when results came out this past June, although the increases were less significant than last year’s.

More than a third of the city’s 180 schools remain on a state watch list because of poor academic performance.

“The thing that is hurtful for us is, only the negative side of the story seems to be getting out,” Ms. Copeland said. “When the reports are given about student achievement, rarely are we put in context with places who have similar demographics.”

Steve Kearney, a spokesman for Mr. O’Malley, believes the state’s increasingly critical stance toward the Baltimore schools has sharpened over the past two years and is well calculated.

“Things that in the past were handled in one way are now handled in press conferences or releases to the news,” he said. “It seems like some of these state efforts are timed for maximum political impact, rather than to try and improve the school system.”

But Gov. Ehrlich has been fully invested in the turnaround of the city schools, according to Henry Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

“Since the governor took office in 2003, he has increased funding by about 17 percent, and increased funding for special education by about $70 million,” Mr. Fawell said. “The city does not have a money problem. It has a management problem.”

Mr. Fawell dismisses suggestions that the governor’s efforts directed toward the Baltimore schools have a political aim. “It’s utterly absurd when you look at how much the school system has failed these children,” he said. “All you have to do is look at the numbers.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 14, 2005 edition of Education Week as Looming Race Fuels Sniping Over Baltimore Schools

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