Baltimore school deal tough sell for Schmoke Mayor encounters opposition at home and in Annapolis

THE BALTIMORE SUN

As often as four days a week, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is in Annapolis meeting with legislators -- in delegation offices, committee rooms and at the dinner table, in groups and one on one.

These days, Schmoke is huddled in hallways, schmoozing on State Circle and chatting on the fly. He is explaining, pushing and even pleading for approval of a deal that was as difficult for him to swallow as it is to sell now to lawmakers from across the state.

What's foremost on his mind is the General Assembly's approval of the $254 million aid-for-accountability city schools deal. The plan would give Baltimore's schools more state money but take away the mayor's near-exclusive oversight of the school system and give the state a role in running it.

"It's my No. 1 priority," Schmoke says.

And it's a very hard sell -- both in Annapolis and back home in Baltimore.

"Unlike the stadium deal last year, where the overwhelming majority of city legislators thought that was a good deal for Baltimore, many of those legislators this year believe this is less than a good deal," Schmoke said. "At the same time, legislators outside of Baltimore think this is an enormous amount of money going to the city."

Some lawmakers from other areas are wary of putting more state money into the city schools, while others -- including some who are sympathetic to Baltimore's plight -- are using the city package as leverage to gain more state aid for their own counties.

Schmoke is following in the footsteps of other mayors of Baltimore who have made the trek to Annapolis, hat in hand.

He, too, has asked the state for help during his past nine years in office. But this time, the mayor is not simply asking for more money, or handing off to the state a jail or community college that the city's eroding tax base could no longer support.

Giving up control

This time, the mayor of Baltimore is giving up control of the school board and school system and agreeing to change the city power structure that was established nearly a century ago.

It is a plan that has come at a cost to him, politically and personally.

Some city lawmakers, ministers and even Schmoke's political guru, Larry S. Gibson, have objected to the mayor's agreeing to the deal, the result of a settlement of three lawsuits that sought more state money and improvements in the city schools.

His critics have urged him to hold out for more money and refuse to turn over control of another piece of the city to the state. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that Schmoke -- the city's first black elected mayor -- betrayed the black voters of Baltimore with that agreement.

"Kurt's in a very difficult position," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said. "He's trying to do the best possible thing for the schoolchildren of Baltimore, but it's tough."

Del. Frank D. Boston Jr., a West Baltimore Democrat who chairs the city's House delegation, explained that while the majority of city legislators support the deal, some have reservations about the shift in power away from City Hall.

"There are those who think it's a sellout," Boston said.

Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat, said he would be voting for the bill, but added, "It's one of those Catch-22s: You're damned if you do and the same if you don't."

Schmoke acknowledged the pressure on the home front as well as the dissatisfaction among some city legislators in Annapolis, best shown by their sponsorship of a handful of bills that are alternatives to House Bill 312, the legislation that grew out of the court settlement and consent decree.

"I think the city delegation reflects the sentiment of the community -- there's real division," Schmoke said.

'Best deal possible'

"I've debated with people I normally wouldn't debate with and it's been the subject of a great deal of discussion, but I really am clear with people that this represents real hope for our kids -- that this is the best deal possible for the children that we are going to get for a long time," he said.

Under the deal, the state would be given a significant role in running the city schools in exchange for $254 million in new aid to the school system over five years.

As part of the court settlement, a new school board would be created, with its members appointed jointly by the governor and mayor from a list of nominees by the state Board of Education, and the top city schools management would be replaced.

The settlement is contingent, however, on the General Assembly's approval of the increase in state education aid.

Schmoke's critics point to the 1994 recommendations of the Governor's Commission on School Funding, commonly called the Hutchinson Commission for its chair, Donald P. Hutchinson. That report recommended up to $140 million in additional state aid to the city each year.

"From Day One, we have fought hard for the Hutchinson report," Schmoke said. "It's very clear that this is less than those recommendations, but it's absolutely the best we're going to be able to get for these children anytime soon."

Nevertheless, others, such as Sen. Larry Young and Del. Clarence M. Mitchell IV, both Baltimore Democrats, have sponsored bills that would, among other things, retain city control over procurement in Baltimore's nearly $800 million schools budget.

"They're saying, 'I can live here, I can pay taxes here, but I have no say over how my money gets spent,' " Mitchell said.

Mitchell acknowledged that there is an unspoken racial element to the uneasiness over House Bill 312.

"If this were any other jurisdiction, you would see everyone jumping up and down about autonomy," he said. "Why [does the state] need to take it over instead of enhancing it?"

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III, who has made no secret of aspirations of becoming the next mayor, held a special meeting of the council Wednesday night to hear testimony on the Mitchell bill and its differences from 312.

"I never thought this deal was going to rape the city and include procurement," Bell said in a later interview. "This is not a partnership; it's a takeover."

Objection from a friend

One of the more difficult blows to Schmoke over the settlement came from Gibson, the mayor's close friend and political adviser for years.

Gibson objected to Schmoke's agreeing to give away so much of the city's power -- at any cost. He argued instead to let the matter be settled in court, according to people who know both men.

The two men acknowledge that there was a blowup, but play down its scale and significance.

"We agreed to disagree on this matter," Schmoke said.

But those closest to the mayor say he was stung badly by the temporary split and that it was the cause of an uncharacteristic burst of emotion from Schmoke, generally a calm and controlled man.

In November, when officials signed the final settlement agreement that ended the long-running battle over the management and funding of Baltimore's public schools, the mayor was visibly distraught.

His voice cracking with emotion, Schmoke told a courtroom filled with city and state officials, educators, parents and children that the struggle to improve the schools and settle the lawsuits was "an emotional time for us," during which "some friendships have been sorely strained."

He was so overcome by the moment that he had to step back from the rostrum to compose himself.

Late last month, at a hearing in Annapolis on House Bill 312, Schmoke found himself in the uncomfortable position of trying to sell the deal to legislators, some of whom clearly had no grasp of what the plan and its concessions meant to him.

In what was an obviously difficult statement, Schmoke acknowledged problems with the city school system and that he had a role in some of them.

One delegate, suggesting a complete state takeover of the system, questioned whether Schmoke was giving up enough, since even in a reduced capacity the mayor would be on similar footing with county executives in having less control of the school system and budget.

Schmoke patiently responded by saying that mayors and executives around the nation are fighting for "the power I am now giving up" -- "the Baltimore model." Since 1898, he said, Baltimore's mayor has had the sole authority to appoint the school board.

He went on to say that when he took office in 1987, he wanted the legacy of his administration to be that it had made Baltimore "the city that reads." That, he said, would have made him "proudest."

A giant step back

Instead, "I am now stepping back, a huge giant step, from my involvement with the city schools," Schmoke said.

The poignancy of the moment seemed lost on many of the legislators as he told them that he was willing to cede partial control of the school system to the state for the good of the children -- and urged them to approve the plan.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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