Bond ratings, money aside, schools mess gets personal

Michael Olesker

NOW WE get personal on the schools. You start with a couple of ticked-off City Council members, Robert Curran and Keiffer Mitchell, and you go to Mayor Martin O'Malley turning his back on the governor, and you put aside for one moment all talk of multimillion-dollar bailouts and trembling bond ratings, because now it comes down to something as simple as the perceived human kiss-off.

We start with Curran, pacing furiously in a City Hall corridor, sputtering and fuming and holding up sheets of paper containing numbers that Curran calls lies. These school officials, he says. They knew they were lying about money, and it didn't matter to them. Because, to them, the Baltimore City Council counted for nothing at all.

"They'd come in and blow us off," Curran says. His voice is loud enough to make heads turn. "I'm not talking about some third-grade teacher at Walter P. Carter Elementary coming in here and giving us the wrong answers. I'm talking about the CEO of the whole system, this Carmen Russo, coming in here with her top people, and they're blowing us off year after year with phony financial figures and blow-off answers. And I'm tired of that."

"Absolutely, that's the heart of it," says Keiffer Mitchell, heaving a sigh of disgust. "That's the frustration of this partnership."

He means the thing that happened seven years ago, when a series of lawsuits and back-room political maneuvers forced the city to yield much control of its schools to the state.

For school officials, says Mitchell, this meant one thing: City Hall no longer mattered. It meant the schools could move the dollar figures around, and say one thing and mean another, until they wound up millions in debt and laying off people by the hundreds, and we come down to a Board of Estimates meeting tomorrow morning in which the city will try to resolve this by offering $42 million from its own rainy-day fund instead of taking state assistance.

It was Mitchell who came up with the idea. It is high-risk, and it is also personal. It came out of years of lying from school officials, and weeks of public agonizing at North Avenue school headquarters and the State House in Annapolis, where Gov. Robert Ehrlich was ready to back a state bailout of the schools but might have jeopardized teachers' contracts in return.

"When they first started talking about rainy-day funds, it hit me," Mitchell was saying now. "They were talking about $8 million, and I thought, 'Why not more?' So then I was told, 'It could affect our bond rating.' The thing is, they were doing all this negotiating in Annapolis, and back here in Baltimore, the City Council wasn't even a part of the process.

"So I wrote letters to the governor. And I telephoned his office. And I still haven't gotten a response. I wanted to take part in these talks. I have an obligation to my constituents. They want to know what's going on in their schools. And all I know is what I read in the newspapers. Because we have a whole history here of school officials coming in to the council and talking to us about capital projects, and bond issues, and finances. And they'd just tell us whatever they wanted to tell us, to get through the process. They felt the council was irrelevant, and they were more beholden to the state, since it was the state giving so much money."

Curran and Mitchell have it about half right. School officials weren't just blowing off the City Council; they were doing it to the state, too. But it's part of the modern self-consciousness of the city that its citizens feel buffetted by events out of their control, and its elected officials feel like pawns in a chess game played by others - school officials, state politicians - who found them irrelevant.

And so, at City Hall the other day, we had Mayor O'Malley bracing himself for the inevitable question: By snatching back the request for a state bailout, was O'Malley poking a political finger in the governor's eye?

"No," he said, "this is about the people of Baltimore having a say in the education of their children. We're just trying to take control of our own system."

In Annapolis, Governor Ehrlich held a news conference two weeks ago and said the right words about looking out for children. Then, retreating to his office with a few state officials, he made a great show for the television cameras of sitting down to thrash out a plan for the schools.

After a few moments, the cameras left. Ehrlich immediately turned the meeting over to his budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., and then the governor bolted the meeting for a quickie TV interview.

And the mayor of Baltimore, no stranger to TV cameras, watched all control of the schools slipping out of the city's hands.

"This governor has a lot of misperceptions about government," O'Malley said. He thought about tomorrow's anticipated Board of Estimates meeting on the rainy-day bailout money.

"This is the city saying, 'We don't want a colonial takeover,'" the mayor said. "There's been disrespect and verbal abuse cast upon the city."

Yes, it's about money. And, yes, the bond ratings have everybody nervous. But at City Hall, this is personal, too.
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