Mayor Catherine Pugh called on state legislators Tuesday to return control of Baltimore school board appointments to City Hall for the first time in 20 years.
Making her first appearance as a legislative witness in the General Assembly since her election in November, Pugh, a former state senator, testified before a Senate committee considering legislation that would end the arrangement under which Baltimore's mayor and Maryland's governor have jointly selected members of the board.
"We need people on the school board who understand all of the needs of the school system," Pugh said in an interview before the Senate hearing.
Securing passage of the legislation would culminate years of effort by the Baltimore delegation to return full control of the school system to the mayor and City Council. It also would fulfill one of Pugh's key mayoral campaign promises. The measure would give the mayor a pivotal role in the choice of the school system's CEO because her appointees would make the decision.
The mayor's plea comes at a time when the city is struggling with a $130 million budget gap caused partly by school aid formulas that penalize the city for recent development, inflating the calculation of its wealth. Bolstering Pugh's appointment power would give the mayor greater control over such matters as the system's budget.
The school board currently is made up of nine appointees, but they will be joined by two elected members under legislation passed last year. The bill would give the mayor the power to appoint members after applicants have been vetted by a review committee, subject to a confirmation vote by the City Council.
Pugh told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee that she has spoken with Gov. Larry Hogan about the measure and that he has no objections. Amanda Chasse, a Hogan spokeswoman, said the governor will consider the bill.
The mayor's testimony was brief and met with no opposition.
The legislation would undo a grand bargain the city entered into in 1997 to win a state infusion of $254 million over five years into its troubled school system. Under the deal, the city administration led by then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke surrendered full control of the board as part of a process that led to additional state funding and the eventual creation of the Thornton education aid formula that still drives the distribution of state school aid.
The debate over school aid and governance was one of the most hard-fought of the 1997 legislative session as city lawmakers struggled to win support from other regions of the state for a bailout they said was desperately needed. The Senate passed the bill by a solid margin, but the House, under Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., struggled to cobble together a 78-61 margin for its passage.
The prime architects of the bargain were the late Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and then-Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who led the Senate Budget & Taxation Committee.
Hoffman, now retired, calls the legislation "the crowning achievement" of her 19 years in the General Assembly. She makes no apologies for leading the effort to pass the power-sharing plan two decades ago. The former senator said the board at the time was "a bit of a mess," with members who blamed the children for the system's failings. Hoffman said the power-sharing was in effect a "punishment" for the city.
"For some legislators, it was, 'See, the city isn't competent to run its own affairs,'" she said. But Hoffman called the arrangement necessary, especially to win the votes of Montgomery County lawmakers.
With a new mayor in City Hall, Hoffman said it's time to change the system's governance.
"No solution is perfect forever," said Hoffman, who represented Northwest Baltimore until she lost in a Democratic primary in 2002. "If you're going to be responsible for the outcomes, you've got to have the levers of power in your hands."
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a veteran Baltimore County Democrat who took part in the 1997 debate, remembers it as an agonizing decision for Schmoke and city lawmakers.
"There was a lot of angst in terms of the city giving up control of the board appointments," he said. But state leaders, McFadden said, wanted "some control and accountability" in return for the additional aid.
McFadden said he supported the 1997 legislation "reluctantly," but now he's backing Pugh's effort to win back local control.
"I always think local control is better," he said.
Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Republican who served under Rawlings on the appropriations panel in 1997, said most members of his party likely would take their cues from the governor on whether to support the bill.
"I would want to hear from both of the principal elected officials involved," the Howard County lawmaker said.
Efforts to return the appointment power to City Hall have failed before, but Pugh may be in a stronger position than her predecessors. She is a former state senator with strong support from her former colleagues. She became mayor by winning election on her own instead moving up from council president to fill a vacancy. And unlike former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, she has a cordial relationship with Hogan.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, another Baltimore Democrat who took part in the 1997 debate, said that split governance was "a good deal at the time."
McIntosh, who now chairs the Appropriations Committee, said she's behind Pugh's bill. However, her support comes with a stern admonition.
"Read my lips: This means that the ... responsibility for the Baltimore city school system now would lie with the mayor, the school board and the City Council," she said. "That means when budgets are done, labor negotiations happen, decisions get made about schools, it's a one-stop shop."