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O'Malley ads on school gains face criticism

Mayor Martin O'Malley's latest two campaign commercials portray him as a visionary leader in education who has shepherded millions of dollars in funding to help improve city schools, an achievement some say he is exaggerating.

With 10 days remaining before the Sept. 9 primary, O'Malley's campaign has turned increasingly to television, one of the most effective ways to reach a wide audience. His campaign has paid $170,000 to Dixon/Davis Media Group of Washington, which has produced the four commercials airing throughout the Baltimore area.

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The first two ads promoted O'Malley's efforts on crime, drug treatment and housing. The latest two detail progress in city schools since he took office. One ad states that O'Malley "with Kweisi Mfume delivered $20 million dollars to reform our high schools."

Mfume is president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. O'Malley and a spokeswoman for Mfume said they raised $8 million from local foundations as a match to a $12 million pledge from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last year. Without the local matching funds, O'Malley said, the Gates money would not have materialized. The combined $20 million was announced by the school system in February 2002. O'Malley said he and Mfume were instrumental in getting the foundations to pitch in.

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The mayor said he held a meeting with the local groups at which he and Mfume delivered speeches about city schools.

"I don't see how it would have happened without mayoral leadership and Mfume's help," O'Malley said. He also credited a plea from Carmen V. Russo, the school system's chief executive officer at the time.

Russo, who resigned in March, confirmed O'Malley's meeting. She said she always encouraged him to promote school successes during his tenure.

"The mayor was extremely gracious, but to my knowledge he never spoke to the Gates people," Russo said. "I thought he was very helpful in getting the match. He had that small role, but in no way did he get the Gates money."

She added: "I understand politics, but I think he has enough going for him that he could have given credit [to the school system]."

O'Malley's mayoral rival, high school principal Andrey Bundley, said the commercials are campaign stunts.

"I want him to keep running them," Bundley said. "It adds to the contradiction of what's really happening."

He said O'Malley does not take direct credit in the commercial for progress at schools but also gives no credit to the school system.

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"If you don't listen closely and critically, you won't pick that up," Bundley said.

One commercial features O'Malley's first speaking role. In it, various women state that schools need "vision and leadership." Images of O'Malley and pupils are depicted as a narrator states, "We've added 90 new pre-K centers, doubled the number of full-day kindergartens. ... Now, test scores are rising."

The narrator then refers to the Gates money. O'Malley emerges facing the camera and says, "We're turning the school system around, but we can still do more."

The narrator then states O'Malley's goals of improving school buildings and investing in classroom learning and after-school programs.

The second commercial proclaims the same achievements and a few more. The narrator states: "Baltimore ... improved school funding to second-best in the state, added thousands of computers and increased student test scores."

Critics contend that the commercial implies that the city alone helped with the increased funding. O'Malley concedes that responsibility for the school system is shared by city and state.

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A change in state law in 1997 prohibited mayors from running the public schools, which have received 54 percent more state money in exchange for increased state involvement and greater independence from City Hall. The board that governs the schools is appointed by the mayor and the governor.

O'Malley said the city and state work in partnership. He said together the city and state have spent $3 billion more on schools than on police during his tenure.

Still, O'Malley has been criticized for funding the Police Department more than schools. He provided a 24 percent increase to the police between 2000 and this year, while, according to school statistics, he provided a 2 percent increase for school operations.

"People are trying to twist the reality of the budget and paint me as uncaring about our children, serving the purpose of division politics," O'Malley said.


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