Veto-proof majorities


Capping a whirlwind two days of hearings, lobbying and flat-out begging by Baltimore officials, the General Assembly approved yesterday a one-year moratorium on the state's plan to take over 11 failing city schools. The margin was large enough to override an expected veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"We're grateful to our colleagues who saw some merit in what we were proposing to give relief to students ... and to give adults an opportunity to get it right," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat who works for the city schools.

He helped to push the moratorium through the usually plodding legislative process at breakneck speed.

Now, he said, it is up to the city school system to use the extra time well.

"We are under the microscope to get things done," McFadden said. "We don't want [to have to come back here]. We want to show some improvement."

The moratorium was approved by veto-proof margins - 30-17 in the Senate, one vote more than necessary to override, and 100-34 in the House, where 85 votes would be needed to override a veto.

Unless Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. vetoes the bill by midnight Friday, it will become law. If he does veto it, the General Assembly would have plenty of time to override a veto and reinstate the moratorium by the time the session ends at midnight April 10.

Ehrlich deplored the state of the city schools yesterday.

"You cannot defend sentencing poor kids to this life," he said. "To impose and sentence the status quo on these kids is unacceptable. I am not going to accept it."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is waiting and hoping for a veto. If it happens, she said she will work to change lawmakers' minds and prevent an override.

'A terrible bill'

"If people have the facts ... we'll see if they will reconsider their votes," she said, calling the legislation "a terrible bill."

"It's a slippery slope," she said, "for both our federal funding and the high esteem Maryland is held in for its educational structure."

The bill's passage essentially stalls the state's plan to take over the 11 schools in the fall of 2007. It would forbid state preparations to take direct control of four high schools and put seven middle schools into the hands of independent operators.

McFadden and other Baltimore legislators are working to pass another bill that would give the General Assembly oversight of any state attempt to assume management of Baltimore schools.

The House approved the moratorium with little discussion yesterday afternoon. Earlier, debate in the Senate lasted nearly two hours.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, city school board Chairman Brian D. Morris and other Baltimore officials who had vowed to resist a state takeover watched from the balcony. Before the debate began, they approached lawmakers with a final appeal for support.

Baltimore school advocates argue that city elementary schools have demonstrated marked progress in test scores in recent years. Last year, state figures show, 60 percent of third-graders passed the state reading test.

Low test scores

The city's large middle schools, by contrast, have performed poorly. And, though the city has spent several years breaking up its high schools into smaller, more manageable units, the effort has yet to produce much academic improvement.

Forty percent of Baltimore eighth-graders passed the state's reading test last year, according to state figures. And 35 percent of high school students achieved competency on an English exam that will soon be required for graduation. Among high schools students, 22 percent passed the algebra exam.

The scores for the schools the state is seeking to take over are worse still. At the lowest-performing high school, Southwestern No. 412, 8 percent of students passed the English test and 4 percent passed in algebra.

Those opposing the moratorium challenged the rushed nature of the legislative proceedings and the ability of the Baltimore school system to fix its ailing schools. They ticked off one statistic after another: the number of dropouts, the number who can't read at an acceptable level and the number who fail their required high school exams.

'Dirty laundry'

"I don't like to air dirty laundry, but when we're talking about students, we've got to tell it like it is," said Senate Minority Leader Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus of the Eastern Shore.

"It's tough to stand here and go against a local school system. And it's hard to hear that someone's saying, 'We want to come in and take you over.' But we've reached a point where we have to think about that."

Opposition came mainly from Republicans, but a few Democratic senators voted against the moratorium.

Hours after the vote, Grasmick ran into Sen. John A. Giannetti Jr. in a Senate office hallway. She clasped his hand and thanked the Prince George's Democrat for his support.

Giannetti said later that minutes before the vote, he planned to support Baltimore - and had told O'Malley so - but then decided he couldn't do it.

"My county might be next; we know that," Giannetti said. "But we have failing schools, and we have a State Board of Education who can be responsible for improving the situation. We need to move forward and try something new."

Supporters of the moratorium, including Morris and former Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who is now a lobbyist, said a switch in management now would quash the bit of progress city schools have made.

"If you don't allow this, you end up stopping the momentum," said Hoffman, who was integral in establishing the original city-state education partnership.

Del. Catherine E. Pugh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she hopes city educators will spend the extra time putting together a plan that addresses the school crisis and that the city and state find a way to make it happen.

"Prayerfully, when we come back to the General Assembly in the fall, we've got a plan," she said. "It will say here's what we need, here's where we're going and here's what we can achieve in the next 10 to 15 years."

Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said, "Give the students and parents and teachers a year to do what they're already doing. Give us a year."

Sun reporter Kelly Brewington contributed to this article.

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