With the city school system heading toward insolvency, the unthinkable becomes thinkable.
Radical fixes are tossed about with deadly seriousness - such as state takeovers and replacing the school board.
Here's what authorities said yesterday about the legal ramifications of some of the proposals on the table. Fire the school board. State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick can do so, with the approval of the governor. But there's a catch, said lawyers for the state Board of Education. Appointed board members can be fired for only five reasons, including incompetency and immorality.
"Grasmick isn't likely to do that," said Barbara A. Hoffman, a former state senator and a key author of the legislation that set up city-state partnerships to run schools in Baltimore City and Prince George's County. "You can accuse the city board of having spent foolishly, but they haven't acted incompetently. Of course, the board could always be asked to resign."
Put the system in legal receivership and appoint an education czar to run the schools, or a financial control board to keep close watch over the budget.
This is essentially a state "takeover." It has never happened in Maryland, though districts in New Jersey, California and elsewhere have been placed tightly under the control of state-appointed chief executives and boards.
Receivership can be accomplished if someone or some entity, such as the state schools chief or school board, could petition a court to declare insolvency and place the system in receivership.
Or, in another possible outcome, the General Assembly could take over the system. "That's a more likely scenario," said Hoffman.
A full state takeover could negate labor contracts and allow flexibility in cutting salaries and slashing staff, said the state lawyer. This is what happened when the state took over what is the Baltimore City Community College in 1990.
But takeover comes at a painful cost, said Michael W. Kirst, an education researcher at Stanford University and longtime former president of the California state school board.
"The receivers sent in to run the Oakland and West Contra Costa County districts have complete control," said Kirst, "and will have complete control for years. They've cut down on maintenance and cut out art and music and other things considered frills. Both districts still have school boards, but they're largely symbolic side shows."
Keep the school board and appoint a control board to manage finances. This, too, is within the power of the General Assembly. "I think the board has been too harshly judged," said Hoffman. "I don't think it should take the fall for what is really a shared responsibility."
The General Assembly created city-state partnerships to run the schools of Baltimore in 1997 and those of Prince George's County in 2002. The Prince George's board is appointed in the same manner as Baltimore's, after which it's patterned: The county executive and governor choose board members from a list presented by the state school board.
"It's critical to remember that he or she who controls the money controls the school system," said Andre J. Hornsby, the Prince George's schools chief, "and that's the first thing I wanted to accomplish when I arrived in June." Hornsby announced recently that he has eliminated a deficit that, he said yesterday, "had been building for years despite controls that weren't really meaningful."
Appoint a conservator much like the agency that took over failed Maryland savings and loans in a financial scandal in the 1980s. This, too, could be accomplished by the General Assembly. The conservator would have control of the system's finances and chart a course toward financial stability.
"The state didn't have to put the S&Ls in conservancy," Hoffman said, "but it may have to do something about Baltimore schools. We forget that education, unlike banking, is constitutionally a state responsibility."
Hand all of the reins back to the city. No one seriously suggests this alternative. The city had its chance, said the experts, and had to turn to the state for relief. And, as Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. pointed out in his news conference yesterday, the state is where the bucks are. It's the city school system's banker of last resort.