Money plan for schools provokes a shrug bTC


ANNAPOLIS -- What we have here in the state Capitol is the rolling of eyeballs, the shrugging of the shoulders. You ask about the promised state money for the schools of Baltimore. The eyes go 'round. You watch legislators' reactions to their governor, who talks of tax cuts and scholarships and little children. And the shoulders hunch into the neck, the gesture of mixed emotions.

When Parris N. Glendening stepped into the House chamber last week to deliver his State of the State address, he was greeted by an avalanche of ambivalence. The applause was polite, but nothing more. These folks can sense a man in trouble, so most of them are watching from a safe political distance.

In a 41-minute speech that seemed longer because Glendening's delivery could dampen the enthusiasm of evangelicals, he was interrupted by applause 17 times. But it was tepid and seemed to arrive mainly out of good manners. You don't leave a man standing there when he has clearly paused for a ripple of encouragement.

Once, legislators applauded the state's Triple A bond rating. Once, they applauded "all the teachers in Maryland." Once, the notion to "dedicate this session" to helping families.

The governor's on pretty safe ground there. Who wouldn't be? But, putting aside the 42 times he referred to children in his speech, and putting aside his cloying mention of his volunteer work in an elementary school library several times a month, and putting aside his glowing evaluations of the state ("Maryland... is good!" -- At any moment, you expected him to declare, "Ich bin ein Marylander"), Glendening gets into trouble on the details.

Nobody's against children, but the governor hasn't yet delivered on this deal to send $254 million over five years to help Baltimore's public school kids. He's leaving the selling job to Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, the state school superintendent. Has she got a shot?

This is where the rolling of the eyes commences. Minutes before Glendening's speech last week, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor sat in his office and pondered the fight to come.

"We're going to need a lot of educating within the legislature," he said, and proceeded to mince no words. "The schools are in horrible shape. OK, they've promised reforms. But, until the reforms are put into place, how do you intelligently put a number into place to know how much money it'll take?

"There's been horrendous mismanagement of the schools. The money they've been getting has been wasted. Nobody's questioning the need for more money to properly educate these children. But, how much? And how do you ask for more money when enrollment figures are going down, and you've got a history of waste, and nobody knows what the new management setup will look like?"

And how do you sell such a proposed figure -- about $50 million a year -- when other undernourished school systems are seeking money, when the governor wants funds for state police pay raises and scholarships for B students with modest family incomes, and when he wants a 10 percent tax cut?

Maybe it means something, maybe not, but when Glendening declared, "We must pull together to make a prudent and responsible tax cut in our personal income tax rate," nobody clapped. This, from a crowd that applauded "infrastructure improvements."

Maybe they were thinking about the money for Baltimore's schools, about which Glendening pulled no punches.

"We have schools that, quite frankly, are failing," he said. "There are schools where 14 out of every 100 students, three times the state average, are headed for a life of low-paying jobs, welfare, no health care and, for some, a life of crime and a future in prison. It is our moral obligation to stop it from happening."

He got pretty good applause then. But, in a hallway outside the House chambers, state Sen. Larry Young was asked if the $254 million was likely. His eyes seemed to roll back in his head for an instant.

"Going to be close," he said. "It's up to Mike" -- meaning state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. "I hate to put pressure on him, but there it is."

Miller was found in another part of the Statehouse, ironically, chatting with some students. He's slightly edgy when it comes to talk of Baltimore, owing to remarks he made several years back that he thought were off-the-record but made their way onto television. He uttered some harsh truths and was vilified for it. In pungent language, he said the city was in terrible shape.

He was right; it's just that, coming from an outsider, it sounded like bullying. But, in retrospect, it sounds like the kind of blunt honesty required to face the city's problems.

"The school money?" Miller said now. "I think we can do it, but it's going to be a very difficult sell. Montgomery County wasn't at the table when the deal was made. There are other counties looking for school money.

"But the big thing is reforms. There has to be an honest evaluation of teachers, and accountability from the people running the system. Without those, it's wasted money."

Now that such a message has apparently reached Baltimore's City Hall, the question is: Will the rest of the state buy it? Parris Glendening hopes so.

He's had a rough couple of years, and the best his State of the State speech brought last week was politeness, but nothing approaching passion.

Pub Date: 1/19/97

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