Mayor Martin O'Malley, who enjoys a national reputation as a municipal number cruncher, is in the midst of what many call the biggest crisis of his administration - a school system crippled by runaway spending.
Even though the mayor has limited authority over city schools, his political future could be colored by how he handles a mess that, despite progress made over the weekend, isn't close to being cleaned up, political observers say.
"The image of a city school system out of control can really become a national focus without too much difficulty," said Keith Haller, president of Potomac Survey Research, a nonpartisan polling firm. "You have a crisis. You would expect the top leader of that urban area to do whatever's necessary to resolve that crisis, even if you don't have direct responsibility for schools."
The financial disaster presents both a problem and an opportunity for the state's most prominent political rivals, O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whom the mayor is widely expected to challenge in 2006. Both will need to appeal to suburban voters, who tend to support school spending but might be less interested in bailing out a city system that can't even explain how it wound up $58 million in the red.
O'Malley has alternately cast himself as take-charge administrator and urban underdog. Last month, he said Baltimore would "get our own house in order" and would not seek state aid. Last week, he said he was "exasperated" that Ehrlich had not offered any money.
In between, O'Malley offered the schools $8 million - in the form of a low-interest loan, rather than a handout - as part of a deal that would have required school employees to take a temporary 3.5 percent pay cut.
Teachers rejected that proposal Thursday, so O'Malley worked over the weekend to try to negotiate a deal with the Abell Foundation to match the city's $8 million loan. That agreement, still not completed, would allow the school system to avoid imposing a steeper pay cut or mass layoffs, but would keep it afloat only for a matter of months.
"I'm trying to do the best I can with the resources of the city," he said on a radio talk show Friday.
Ehrlich, who seems more insulated from any fallout, has been positioning himself as the executive who would finally demand financial order from the schools. On Friday, his schools superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, appointed a three-member panel to investigate the system's finances.
"Somebody at some point has to get to the bottom of this mess, and it is going to be this administration, this year," he said.
At the same time, facing criticism that he seemed uncaring toward city schools, Ehrlich softened his stance. On Friday, hours after saying he was not inclined to give "good money after bad," he hinted financial help might be on the way.
"The governor is not going to win any votes in the city" even if he aids the schools, said Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins University political science professor. But, Crenson said, "He can get a couple of things. He can show he's concerned about urban education. And it gives him an excuse to cut back elsewhere and blaming it on Baltimore and O'Malley, and say, 'I had to give Baltimore emergency funds.'"
O'Malley is not the first Baltimore mayor to have trouble with city schools. William Donald Schaefer endured a monthlong teachers' strike 30 years ago. Kurt L. Schmoke faced such severe financial and management problems that he had to give up control of the schools to a city-state partnership.
Under that partnership, set up in 1997, the mayor and governor jointly appoint the system's nine-member school board.
The subtleties of school authority could be lost on voters in a statewide race. Before he could take on Ehrlich, O'Malley might have to face Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan in the Democratic primary. Voters are likely to associate O'Malley with one of the worst school systems in the state, and Duncan with one of the best, observers say.
Even those who say the crisis is no more O'Malley's fault than Ehrlich's believe that it poses little political danger to the governor because he is seen as being removed from the problem.
"It's hard for me to see the governor being whipsawed on the Baltimore City schools," Haller said.
Regardless of who is responsible, the schools' financial state hardly fits the good-government image that O'Malley has cultivated for Baltimore.
O'Malley has won praise from many quarters - from the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research to Esquire magazine - for taking agency heads to task every other week under a system called CitiStat. Figures for overtime, sick days and other measures of departmental efficiency are scrutinized, so there are no big surprises at the end of the fiscal year.
Schools only recently became a public focus for the mayor, who won election in 1999 on a promise to reduce violent crime. In many speeches, he ticked off academic gains made on his watch, but only as part of a litany that also covered crime, drug addiction and economic development.
O'Malley became more vocal about schools during last year's Democratic primary, when his chief rival was a high school principal, Andrey Bundley. The mayor devoted two television commercials to the subject, pointing to academic progress and taking credit - more than O'Malley deserved, former schools chief Carmen V. Russo complained at the time - for winning millions in new funding for schools.
"You can't walk around and take credit for everything and then say it's somebody else's fault," Schaefer said. "To let $58 million slip through your fingers, there's something wrong with that."
But Schaefer, who had more statutory authority over schools when he was mayor than O'Malley does, also said city mayors have a can't-win relationship to education.
"Years ago, I was told by everyone to stay out of education," he said. "Then when we got in trouble, people said, 'What's the matter with you?'"
Sun staff writers Doug Donovan and David Nitkin contributed to this article.