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Senate backs off bill to require confirmation of state school superintendent

The Maryland Senate on Tuesday backed off an effort to require that the state school superintendent be subject to confirmation — a measure seen as a challenge to Gov Larry Hogan's authority.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the bill's sponsor, moved to send the legislation back to committee — a maneuver that usually means a measure's demise. Pinsky conceded afterward that he does not expect the legislation to return to the floor.

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The bill ran into fierce opposition from the Republican governor, who saw it as an attempt by the General Assembly's Democratic majority to erode the powers of the chief executive.

The superintendent is now hired by the state Board of Education, whose members are appointed by the governor.

Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer welcomed the action.

"Mixing politics with education was an incredibly bad idea, and it's great to see that the Senate came down on the right side of this issue," Mayer said.

The clash over the bill was part of a larger power struggle between the governor and the General Assembly over the limits of each other's power. The legislation was one of about 20 bills introduced by Democrats that the governor's office has identified as cutting into the powers of the chief executive.

They include measures that would curb the governor's powers on appointments, budgeting decisions, parole, contracting and oyster beds. Some proposals predate Hogan's term in office, but most appear to have been prompted by legislative frustration with divided government in general and this governor in particular.

The Pinsky bill had come to the Senate floor last week, but action was deferred while senators sought a legal opinion on its constitutionality. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, said the bill had been determined by the attorney general's office to be constitutional. But he said members of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which narrowly approved the bill, had expressed concerns about moving forward.

"It would have needed an override of the governor's veto," Pinsky said. An override requires a three-fifths vote of both chambers, and Pinsky said it was not clear there would be enough votes. The legislation came to the floor without much momentum after receiving only a 6-5 committee vote.

The measure was prompted in part by concerns that the school board would choose a superintendent whose views on education policy were out of tune with those of General Assembly leaders.

Pinsky said that rather than try to influence those policies through the confirmation process, lawmakers could intervene legislatively if they saw a new superintendent adopt policies on vouchers, charter schools and other matters that he described as out of the mainstream.

"We should get engaged then and show our oversight then," he said.

The governor's office described the argument that more legislative oversight is needed as "complete and utter rubbish." It said since school board members already face Senate confirmation, requiring the superintendent to go through the same process would be a "completely unnecessary politicization of education."

The governor's office pointed to a 2008 statement by longtime state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick when she came under pressure to resign.

Reusing to quit, Grasmick said the appointment process had been in place since 1916 to keep politics out of education.

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"I'm doing this," she said, "because there's a very critical protection of a principle: The education of our children should not be subjected to partisan politics."

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