Landmark legislation to overhaul management of the ailing Baltimore school system and send it $254 million in new state aid cleared perhaps its final major hurdle last night, narrowly winning approval in the House of Delegates.
The package of aid and management reforms is now expected to win final General Assembly approval before the legislative session ends tomorrow night. But at least one major issue must still be resolved between the House and Senate.
Last night's 78-61 vote in the House capped a day of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations and scrambling by supporters to nail down the 71 votes needed to pass the bill and ended, for now, the bitter feuding over education funding that has dominated the session.
In the end, a coalition of legislators from Baltimore, Baltimore County and rural areas pushed the bill through, over the rhetorically charged objections of Washington-area lawmakers who complained the measure does not send enough new state aid their way.
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. was pleased with the outcome but acknowledged that regional feuding over the issue had done damage with-in his chamber.
He called the schools legislation "the most divisive, most polarizing issue that this House of Delegates will face."
"When we leave here tonight, we should all say a little prayer that we will not be as divided again," Taylor said.
The legislation would take control of the city's public school system from the mayor and hand it to a new board, whose members would be appointed jointly by the governor and mayor from a list of nominees picked by the state school board.
The nine-member board would have broad power to run the system -- with authority over everything from personnel to procurement to educational policy matters.
The bill grew out of a consent decree signed last fall by the mayor, governor and others to settle three lawsuits over conditions in the school system. If the bill does not become law, the issue of school management and funding would likely go back to court for judges to decide.
Aid over five years
Under the bill, as management of the system was being overhauled, the state would send an additional $254 million in education aid to the city over five years.
The city schools would receive $30 million in new aid next year and $50 million in subsequent years, as well as additional construction aid.
In the past several weeks, the measure ran into a high wall of opposition. National NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume joined black ministers from Baltimore and others last week to charge that the city is giving up too much authority over its educational system in exchange for too little money.
And lawmakers from other areas of the state, particularly Prince George's and Montgomery counties, have held fast in opposing the bill, saying their areas deserve more school aid, too.
The bill passed last night includes $33 million in new education aid for other jurisdictions around the state -- $6 million each for Montgomery and Baltimore counties, and $8 million for Prince George's.
That was not enough for lawmakers from suburban Washington, who pushed for an amendment to funnel, instead, an additional $44.1 million in state aid to other counties.
"We want to give our very best to all the children, not just some of the children," said Del. Nathaniel Exum, a Prince George's Democrat.
The effort failed, 46-88.
Supporters of the legislation said it was time to do something to fix the Baltimore school system, which has the lowest test scores in the state.
"Coming from a county as poor as mine, it's very hard to vote for all this money going to one jurisdiction," said Del. Betty Workman, an Allegany County Democrat. "But I can see that in Baltimore City you have a crisis. I don't think this is something we can possibly avoid."
Life preserver for city
Del. Leon G. Billings broke ranks with most of his Montgomery County colleagues to support the bill.
"It's time to throw a life preserver to the city," said Billings, one of three Montgomery Democrats to support the measure. No legislators from Prince George's voted "yes."
One Montgomery legislator said the measure will do little for city education efforts.
"It's like putting millions of dollars into a one-wing airplane," said Del. Barrie S. Ciliberti, a Montgomery Republican. "One-wing airplanes don't fly. It's just good money after bad."
Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the chief proponent of the bill, said he was relieved to have the measure through the House.
"Now we can focus on educating the children," said Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat.
"This was a difficult and courageous vote by the House of Delegates," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said afterward. "Unlike any other school system in our state, Baltimore City schools are in crisis."
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who has fought for six years for city school reforms, watched the debate from the House gallery, leaning nervously on a railing.
"This has been a long journey for me, and I believe that this General Assembly has demonstrated that it truly believes that children and education are the highest priority," she said. "This represents a wonderful victory for the children of Baltimore City."
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who spent much of the day calling legislators to make sure they voted for the bill, was unavailable for comment after the vote.
The House version of the legislation differs in several respects from the Senate-passed measure. Those differences must be reconciled by both houses before the bill sent to the governor for his signature.
A possible sticking point is whether to keep the school management reforms in place after the five years of additional funding spelled out in the bill.
Yesterday morning, the bill emerged from two House committees on a vote of 33-17.
House leaders spent the rest of the day ensuring the votes held. Both Glendening and Schmoke worked the bill, calling delegates in their own efforts to solidify the vote.
In the end, only three delegates from Baltimore voted against the bill: Carmena F. Watson, Clarence M. Mitchell IV and Ruth M. Kirk, all Democrats.
Pub Date: 4/06/97