Zero sum game


WITH THE deadline for choosing a new Baltimore city schoo superintendent fast approaching, three constituencies are looking over Mayor Schmoke's shoulder as he ponders his options.

If Schmoke is listening (as he surely is), he already knows who belongs to which group and how they want the matter resolved. The problem is, there's no way he can satisfy GlennMcNattany one faction without risking alienating the others.

I call the three groups the conspiracy theorists, the pragmatists and the fence-sitters. Presently they are loose constituencies of opinion rather than organized voter blocs. But the superintendent's job nevertheless has the potential for coalescing them into a force to be reckoned with on Election Day, when the mayor will seek re-election, because their differences center on the emotional issue of race.

Conspiracy theorists, whose views recently served as the basis for a controversial article by Baltimore Times editor R. B. Jones, see the superintendent search as a vehicle by which the white establishment, symbolized by the Greater Baltimore Committee, seeks to reassert control over the school department and its $500 million budget.

In this scenario, Superintendent Richard C. Hunter was thsacrificial lamb of the white business community, which wants to replace him with one of its own in order to wrest power back from the middle-class black professionals who now run the system. The schools would then become a dumping ground for unemployed white professionals made marginal by a shrinking local economy.

For these reasons, conspiracy theorists oppose the candidacy of former state education superintendent David C. Hornbeck, who is white.

The second group, the pragmatists, believes the race issue has been overplayed at the expense of finding someone who can get the job done. They question whether it makes any difference that the superintendent is black or white, male or female, so long as he or she can raise test scores, cut dropout rates and institute long-needed reforms in the way schools are structured and managed.

Finally, fence-sitters think that election year politics make it virtually impossible for the school board and the mayor to pick a superintendent on the basis of qualifications and track record alone. They advocate delaying a final decision until next year, in the meantime appointing an interim schools chief -- perhaps current Associate Superintendent Patsy Blackshear.

What all three opinion constituencies have in common is a perception that the superintendent selection process is primarily political, rather than an educational, exercise. Those few who ask where the concern for city children is in effect are crying in the wilderness.

Schmoke can hardly afford to ignore these three big constituencies -- each of which, incidentally, is certain the mayor has already made up his mind who the next superintendent will be.

Conspiracy theorists suspect Hornbeck is the choice, an outcome that would confirm their worst fears that Schmoke has "sold out" to the business community. That's the talk, however unlikely, in the town's black barbershops and political watering holes, and it may be only the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of folk who may not believe in conspiracies but who nevertheless think a majority-black school system ought to have a black superintendent.

Pragmatists would like to believe race is irrelevant, but even they are uncomfortable with talk of the "access" Hornbeck would enjoy in Annapolis as a result of his stint as state schools chief.

If after so many years of starving city schools for funds, the legislature suddenly turned around and showered Superintendent Hornbeck with largess, the change might look racially motivated even if it wasn't.

Fence-sitters probably won't get their way for the same reasothey climbed on the fence in the first place: This is hardball politics, and Schmoke can't afford the impression of indecision that option would entail. He's already got challengers on both sides ready to pounce on any choice he makes. Delay would bring all parties down on his head but produce little or no political benefit.

That, of course, is the rub. No matter how sincere the mayor is in his desire to push school reform forward, his options are severely constrained by the political climate in which he finds himself. He can't do anything if he doesn't get re-elected.

It's also why the zero sum calculations of an election year tend to downplay the most important question of all: What is best for the school children of this city?

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