Reform plan: fixing the cone of silence


Turns out the wife isn't always the last to know. Sometimes it's the school board.

On Monday, Maryland schools chief Nancy Grasmick gave reporters an off-the-record briefing on her plan to seize 11 failing Baltimore City schools. That was a full day before she told city schools CEO Bonnie Copeland about it. Even then, the board was supposed to stay out of the loop.

"My understanding is that Dr. Grasmick told Dr. Copeland that it would be foolish to share the details of her proposal with anyone - including the board - because it had not yet been approved by the state board," city board Chairman Brian Morris said. "However, she had just shared it 24 hours earlier with the media."

So were Morris and the rest of the board just floored on Wednesday, when Grasmick went public with her plan? Hardly.

Grasmick had been hinting for weeks that she was planning to do "something big," said Morris, who also got an early, albeit unsanctioned heads-up that it was about to come down early this week.

"As soon as she notified reporters she was having a briefing, we found out," Morris said. "I heard from somebody in the school system who had heard from somebody else."

Morris said he immediately phoned Copeland. Next day, Grasmick filled in the Baltimore schools chief in a meeting scheduled one hour before a city board meeting. Copeland went straight from that tete-a-tete to the board meeting and, despite Grasmick's request to keep mum, spilled the beans in executive session, Morris said.

The leaks hardly mollified Morris and other city officials, who point to the media briefing in particular as evidence that the takeover plan is political. Bill Reinhard, a state Education Department spokesman, said there was nothing unusual about Grasmick offering the press a "courtesy briefing" on a complicated issue. He says the department was the one that was wronged.

"The agreement that everyone had before the vote was that no one would say anything before the vote Wednesday," he said. "Our understanding is that Mr. Morris, after being briefed by Dr. Copeland, broke that agreement. The dominoes fell."

Morris says he wasn't bound to keep anything quiet. Besides, he adds: "There are very few secrets in the world."

More messy than mysterious

So much of this schools takeover thing is mysterious, behind-the-scenes stuff. Let me answer one question everyone's asking, even in Grasmick's office: What was the [expletive] deleted from Brian Morris' front-page quotation the other day? Two words: barnyard variety.

State trumps skates

State highway officials let the town of Bel Air shut down Main Street at 4 p.m. on a Friday a few weeks back so Kimmie Meissner, fresh from her sixth-place Olympic finish, could have a parade. But the town couldn't get permission to string a banner across the street (a state road) to celebrate her Worlds win. "Bureaucratic nightmare," says Town Commissioner David Carey. The banner went up the other day at City Hall instead.

Watching that waste can be lucrative

Gov. Robert Ehrlich's flush tax is one of 50 finalists for the Innovations in American Government Awards, given out by (big breath here) the Ash Institute for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Seven winners, to be announced in July, will receive $100,000 grants. Among the winners in 2004: Mayor Martin O'Malley's CitiStat.

Greatest deliberative body in the ACC

March Madness office pools distract employees at yet another workplace: the U.S. Senate. Sen. Elizabeth Dole yesterday accepted Sen. Barbara Mikulski's bet on the outcome of Sunday's Women's NCAA Final Four. If the Tarheels win, Dole feasts on Maryland crab cakes. If the Terps do, Mikulski tucks into North Carolina barbecue.

2nd place goes to

Johns Hopkins ranks No. 2, again, behind Harvard, in U.S. News & World Report's annual ranking of medical schools. The school was No. 2 for 13 years, dropped to No. 3 in 2004 and climbed back into second place last year.

Connect the dots

... Embattled City Council President Sheila Dixon held a $250-a-head breakfast fundraiser yesterday at The Center Club. No word yet from her treasurer, sister Janice Dixon, on how much she took in. ... Guess O'Malley has the look. Jordache Enterprises and its general counsel, Robert Spiegelman, each donated $2,500 to his campaign. ... Did he see the schools takeover coming, but in reverse? In his recent letter to Brian Morris, Sen. Nathaniel McFadden addressed him as chairman of the state school board. ... Chinese call it the Year of the Dog. But today, Gov. Ehrlich declares 2006 the Year of the Basilica, as Baltimore marks the 200th anniversary of America's first cathedral.

Both can cause heartburn

Quote of the Week on the Maryland Democratic Party's Web site: "The birth of democracy is an ugly process. It's a lot like making sausage. Now, when it's done, it's good. Fried up, it's delicious. But to make it can be pretty nasty." - Lt. Gov./Senate hopeful Michael Steele, talking about Iraq in Sunday's New York Times magazine.

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