Senators skeptical of Steele vow to city school


The chairman of Baltimore's Senate delegation questioned yesterday whether Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's promise this week to fix Frederick Douglass High School was "empty campaign rhetoric."

In a letter to the lieutenant governor, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden wrote that if Steele is "truly interested in finding a rationale as to why some schools flounder," he need look no further than his administration's opposition to fully funding city schools.

A Circuit Court judge ruled in 2004 that the state had unlawfully underfunded public education in Baltimore by $400 million to $800 million since 2000.

McFadden, a Democrat, is the House majority leader. Steele is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has sparred with Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. over control of the city schools.

Visiting Douglass in West Baltimore on Wednesday, Steele made a personal commitment to help turn the school around. He expressed support for a proposal for Coppin State University to manage the school.

McFadden's letter criticizes Steele for lamenting "the fact that only 42 of 114 graduating Douglass seniors attended college last year." It says that most Douglass students cannot afford to go to college, a situation made worse, he said, because the Ehrlich administration has increased tuition at Maryland's public institutions.

"This decision is having a brutal impact on the very students you now seek to assist," the letter says. It also says that Steele's "public ambush and berating" of city schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland during the Douglass visit was "beneath the dignity of your office." After Copeland had left, Steele apologized to the Douglass staff for his "excited and somewhat forceful" behavior toward her. "The State's actions are akin to an absentee parent, who has refused to provide adequate support to their children, berating the full-time parent for the conditions their lack of attention/support has created," the letter says.

The letter also encourages Steele, who complained about the physical condition of Douglass, to fully fund the school system's $100 million request for school repairs for next school year. The state so far has approved funding less than 20 percent of that request, and has denied funding for some projects at Douglass, the letter says.

Bryon Johnston, a spokesman for Steele, said the lieutenant governor had not had a chance to fully review the letter.

"On its face, it seems rather inflammatory," he said, "and we will decide if there is an appropriate response or if a response is merited at all."

Douglass was once one of two city high schools open to blacks. It is the alma mater of the late civil rights activist and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

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