With a costly aid package for Baltimore schools in the works, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. acknowledged yesterday the risk of alienating state leaders weary of rescuing Maryland's largest and most troubled city yet again.
Ehrlich said his $42 million bailout loan carries the risk of dividing Maryland along racial and regional lines, igniting debates about how much assistance Baltimore should receive.
"The potential is there," Ehrlich said. "We are not immune to the pre-existing antagonism."
Before announcing the plan yesterday, Ehrlich and his staff toiled privately for days to ease long-simmering anti-Baltimore sentiment and alleviate the concerns of politicians in the suburban and rural areas that voted solidly for him.
The aid package would be a loan, not a gift, Ehrlich aides promised key lawmakers. Accountability would be demanded.
Despite those assurances, frustration seemed barely contained within a fragile bubble of support for the loan in Annapolis yesterday. The displeasure threatened to burst free when lawmakers debate the loan in the weeks ahead.
"Those of us who have run our own systems well are upset at putting money in a system that hasn't," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Republican leader from Somerset County.
State lawmakers would be far less inclined to sign off on the plan, said Del. D. Page Elmore, a Republican and chairman of the House Eastern Shore delegation, if the money were for anything but education.
"If it did not involve 90,000 kids, you'd see this legislature taking a walk," Elmore said.
As Baltimore's population has declined and problems with drugs, crime and poverty have mounted, millions of dollars of state assistance have been pumped into the city. Maryland has built sports stadiums, assumed control of jails and community colleges, and has bailed out the zoo. A 1997 city-state schools partnership infused Baltimore with an additional $250 million in cash after a contentious debate that remains fresh in the minds of many politicians.
While Ehrlich represented the Baltimore area in the House of Delegates and in Congress, the heavily Democratic city voted overwhelmingly against him. The governor said he is all too aware of tensions not only between the city and its suburbs but also between the Baltimore and Washington regions.
"That foundation is not particularly a positive one," Ehrlich said yesterday. "When you apply this [loan plan] on top, the potential is there for mischief, and for mistrust and for problems. We want to forestall it before it gets started."
Indeed, the governor's efforts appeared initially successful. Many politicians expressed support yesterday for the state plan, saying the education of city children was a concern of all.
"Some of those kids in Baltimore City schools are the same ones who come out to Hagerstown to commit crimes," said Del. Robert A. McKee, a Washington County Republican and head of the Western Maryland delegation.
Added Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House Republican whip from Southern Maryland: "We can't just turn our backs on the children of Baltimore City."
But others said the state assistance sets a bad precedent, as other troubled school districts could demand the same help. "If you want extra money, you screw up and you get extra money," said Del. George C. Edwards, the House Republican leader from Garrett County.
Prince George's County school officials are working through an $82 million deficit without a state safety net, said Del. Doyle L. Niemann, a Democrat and former county school board member. Washington-area leaders will probably support the governor's proposal, but reluctantly, Niemann said.
"I don't hear a lot of anger, because there's a lot of sympathy for the situation," he said. "But there's not a lot of support. It's year after year after year of the same problems."
Ehrlich called Baltimore's situation unique, and said he doubted it would be repeated. He noted the presence of House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller at yesterday's announcement as evidence that support was broad.
But both ranking legislators expressed frustration at the need for state aid. "No one seems to know exactly who is at fault," Busch said. "The mayor doesn't have control of it. The state doesn't have control over it."
School superintendents elsewhere in Maryland said they supported the plan, and saw little risk to their jurisdictions.
"I don't begrudge any special attention Baltimore may get. It's in all of our best interests to give it the help it needs," said Howard County Superintendent John R. O'Rourke. "The state of Maryland deserves to have a thriving urban center. That means the schools need serious consideration of what they need."
Anne Arundel County Superintendent Eric J. Smith said Baltimore "is a district that has tremendous potential and deserves the help of the entire state."
In Carroll County, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said, "I think it's good to help them out."
"It's also good to have them repay it," Ecker said. "The governor wants some accountability and structure put in place, and I think that's all part of it. It would have been devastating to lay off a bunch of teachers at this point in the year - they'd have to reorganize classes - so this way they can get through the school year and then reorganize over the summer through attrition. ... "
Despite undercurrents of resentment, Ehrlich runs little political risk by stepping in to help city schools, said Donald F. Norris, a policy sciences professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
"Who can be opposed to lending a firehose to your neighbor whose house is on fire? That's what FDR said," said Norris.
While Ehrlich "is obviously not going to pick up any votes in Baltimore City," Norris said, "I don't think it hurts him with his conservative base, because it shows him as a compassionate conservative."
"I think he looks good, statewide," he said. "He looks gubernatorial."
Sun staff writers Ivan Penn, Tricia Bishop, Laura Loh and Jennifer McMenamin contributed to this article.