The two smile when they're together in public and deny they're feuding.
But beneath the surface amity, the tension between Baltimore school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has been building for months.
It's rooted in the state Education Department's designation last January of two Baltimore high schools, Patterson and Douglass, as candidates for "reconstitution" -- state-ordered reorganization -- because of their poor test scores, low attendance and high dropout rates. Dr. Grasmick scrutinized the plans submitted by the schools, suggested revisions and rejected Patterson's first two versions.
Dr. Amprey did not contest the action; he agreed that the two schools were failing and pledged to cooperate. (That earned him criticism in both schools' communities.)
But a symbolic barrier had been crossed. Dr. Grasmick is not Dr. Amprey's boss (though she was his superior when the two were together in Baltimore County), and state intervention in local affairs is always a sensitive matter. Several years ago, when David Hornbeck, then the state superintendent, suggested state intervention in Baltimore, city Superintendent Alice G. Pinderhughes told him to mind his own business.
Dr. Grasmick also became involved in another city affair -- a 6-year-old consent decree in a lawsuit charging Baltimore with failure to serve thousands of special education students.
At one point,she threatened to withhold $43 million in state and federal special education funds. Then she joined the plaintiffs -- the Maryland Disability Law Center -- in successfully requesting that a court-appointed oversight team be permitted to review Dr. Amprey's appointments above the rank of teacher.
The matter came to a head 10 days ago. While Dr. Amprey stood by in anger, the other two members of the oversight team, representing the law center and Dr. Grasmick,
interviewed five key appointees in Dr. Amprey's administrative reorganization, including the new principal of Patterson.
"This won't happen to the rest of our appointees," Dr. Amprey said. "The court gave the oversight team the power to review, not to interview."
The two sides were at a standoff last week, as both superintendents played down reports that they are feuding. "I think Nancy means well," Dr. Amprey said. "I know she does. We go back a long way."
Dr. Grasmick said, "Walter has a tough job. I know that. My motive is to be extraordinarily supportive."