Accusations of politics in struggle on city schools

Sun Staff

The sparring over who will control Baltimore's struggling school system intensified yesterday as the mayor charged that the governor and state officials are trying to undercut the city's educational and financial progress for political purposes.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley accused Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of orchestrating the routine release of bad news about the city's public education system to tarnish the reputation of the schools and hurt O'Malley, a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 2006.

"Just as we're doing things to make our schools look good and to increase enrollment ... there will be others who for political reasons will be doing everything in their power to make us look bad, especially just on the verge of school opening, so as to depress our enrollment numbers and make the fiscal recovery more difficult," O'Malley said at his weekly news conference in City Hall.

O'Malley's broadside at the governor was prompted by the state Board of Education's decision Tuesday to place 16 city schools on probation for having high rates of violence. The mayor and the governor have been publicly battling over the financially troubled school system since it teetered on bankruptcy this year and O'Malley's local bailout trumped Ehrlich's state [See Schools, 11a] rescue package.

"I anticipate a new event every couple of weeks to make the schools look bad," O'Malley said. "There's obviously people at the state that don't want the city to be successful at anything so long as I'm mayor."

Ehrlich spokesman Henry P. Fawell said the governor's office has nothing to do with the release of information from the office of state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

"It's Grasmick's job to put out the facts," Fawell said. "Citizens of Baltimore need to know the reality of the city school system. It's not Dr. Grasmick's fault or anyone else's fault if the mayor can't accept the facts."

Grasmick denied that her department has a "vendetta" against city schools. She said the probation list was a requirement of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, and she produced copies of letters showing that Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland had been warned of the bad news almost a month ago.

"The only tension we have with the city is our fiduciary responsibility and our responsibility to comply with federal law," she said. "Whenever we have to deliver bad news, people think we invent it. It's just not true."

The mayor's rhetoric yesterday seemed to renew last spring's lengthy struggle between Ehrlich and O'Malley over control of the schools.

Although the state and the city have shared a partnership since 1997 -- when Baltimore ceded partial control in exchange for a major infusion of state money -- tension has mounted significantly since the system's financial situation became dire over the past year.

In March, Ehrlich proposed to bail out the schools with a $58 million package that included money from the city and the Abell Foundation but would have given the state more authority in running the system. The mayor responded with a $42 million loan with no state aid that did not cede any additional oversight.

Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor who follows state and local politics, said O'Malley's accusations reflected the rivalry between potential gubernatorial opponents.

"This is payback for O'Malley's taking over the schools," Crenson said. "It's in the governor's interest to see that this doesn't work so he can point out that O'Malley has failed."

O'Malley's bailout has seemingly lingered with Ehrlich. In a meeting with the Roland Park Civic League this month, Ehrlich said he was frustrated with O'Malley's intervention, according to an article in the Baltimore Messenger, a neighborhood newspaper published by Patuxent Publishing, which is owned by The Sun.

"The mayor wasted two weeks of my time when he told me to pound sand," Ehrlich is quoted as saying in the Messenger's Aug. 11 issue. "The mayor said they don't need the state. They're going to need the state at some point."

The article also quoted Ehrlich as saying: "Beating up on Baltimore is good politics in some places in the state."

Fawell said the governor was referring to tactics used by other elected officials in the state who could blame the state's bailout of Baltimore's schools on why money would not be available for their constituents' needs.

"It could be good politics for someone who wanted to do that, but it's not something that [the governor] does," Fawell said in explaining the quote.

In discussing the release of the city schools list, state school board President Edward L. Root said yesterday that the state was following strict federal guidelines in reporting "persistently dangerous" schools before the end of the month. Contrary to an assertion by the mayor, discussion of the matter was on the state board's meeting agenda that is circulated well in advance, Root said.

O'Malley's office and state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, said the item was not on the state board's draft agenda.

"We were blindsided," McFadden said.

Root said the city should not have been surprised.

"This is their [the school system's] data," Root said of the dangerous schools information. "We didn't make it up."

Copeland said she was not aware that the state was going to release the names of the 16 schools -- though Grasmick alerted her in a letter dated July 29. Two weeks ago, the State Department of Education sent another letter to inform Copeland that she had until Sept. 10 to submit plans to remedy problems at each of the schools.

"We thought we were still in conversation with the state," Copeland said. "We didn't know it was going to be the subject of the state board meeting yesterday and that it would be portrayed in this way. We do not believe we have persistently dangerous schools."

She said that her staff discussed the list with State Department of Education employees Monday and that no one mentioned it would be made public Tuesday. She also said she believes the statistics for Forest Park High School are wrong.

O'Malley also questioned the statistics used by the state.

Schools are put on the probation list if they have had rates of lengthy suspensions and expulsions for violent offenses that are at least 2.5 percent of the student body for two years.

"We tend to look at victims rather than the number of suspensions," O'Malley said. "I would strongly believe overall that the trends in our schools is a reflection of the trends in our city and, therefore, I do believe, though I don't have the numbers to show it, that things are getting better."

O'Malley's office was unable to produce statistics yesterday showing that violent incidents at schools are declining.

"His repeated attempts to cast himself as a victim of some political conspiracy are bordering on paranoia," said Deborah Martinez, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Republican Party.

But Crenson said O'Malley has a legitimate argument that the state is deliberately delivering bad news shortly after the city delivers good news.

When the city announced in late June that the schools had improved scores, Grasmick announced two weeks later that the system had misspent $18 million in federal funds, a move O'Malley's staff questioned.

Two days after Copeland and O'Malley announced the repayment of $34 million of the city loan Aug. 2, Grasmick testified in federal court that the schools should be placed under the control of a trustee.

Today O'Malley is set to kick off another stage in his campaign to renovate schools.

"The timing does seem remarkable," Crenson said.

Sun staff writer Laura Loh contributed to this article.

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