OCEAN CITY -- Schmoozing with hundreds of fellow elected officials from across the state, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Mayor Martin O'Malley paired their cheerful backslapping here yesterday at the annual conference of county governments with backbiting over Baltimore's public schools.
The rival candidates for governor continued yesterday to bicker over what has become the campaign's hottest issue, with each leader accusing the other of having failed Baltimore's schools and offering differing visions -- more City Hall oversight vs. State House control -- as the answer to the education system's woes.
The latest debate between Ehrlich, the Republican incumbent, and O'Malley, the Democratic challenger, was spurred this week when The Sun reported that in June the nine-member city school board -- jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor -- had lowered passing grades from 70 to 60. O'Malley defended the board's actions, which appeared to surprise both candidates. Ehrlich's response was to send a letter to state education officials demanding the ouster of three board members aligned with the mayor.
Yesterday, O'Malley called Ehrlich's rhetoric disingenuous and politically opportunistic because the change was recommended by the state Board of Education, and added that the state's other school districts use the same grading scale. Frederick County made a similar change two years ago, he said.
The mayor also said recent test scores showed that districts in Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and other counties have schools that are failing to meet federal standards.
The governor, he said, chose to single out Baltimore schools for political reasons.
"He applies a double standard," O'Malley said. "I don't think he failed to appoint board members in the ... other counties when they did what his state schools superintendent advises that we do and have a standardized scale with the rest of the state."
Ehrlich said he has long been interested in helping improve Baltimore schools, pointing to a push for charter schools during his first year that was targeted mostly at improving conditions in the city. Ehrlich acknowledged that other school systems have problems, but he said they are nowhere near the same magnitude as the city's.
"It's apples and oranges," Ehrlich said.
The governor said he has been talking about the city schools more in the past several months in reaction to a vote by Democratic leaders of the General Assembly this spring to block a state takeover of 11 persistently failing middle and high schools.
"It crystallized the issue for me," he said. "[Before], I didn't have that vote to deal with. I didn't have the triumph of politics over kids in such a clear way."
O'Malley and other Democratic leaders attending yesterday's Maryland Association of Counties meeting at the convention center here said that Ehrlich has demonstrated that he is not interested in working as a partner with local jurisdictions. The mayor said Ehrlich has shown little interest in city schools except to bash their failings and ignore their progress.
"What an amazing conversion. For four years, I thought [Ehrlich's] passion was slots. Suddenly his passion is city schools. City schools is the new slots," O'Malley said. "We expect that kind of behavior from him."
O'Malley said Ehrlich was using tactics employed by President Bush's chief strategist in political races around the country.
"It's an old Karl Rove tactic -- they believe they have to attack the opponent's greatest strengths," the mayor said.
U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Baltimore Democrat who has endorsed O'Malley, harshly criticized Ehrlich for his attacks on the city schools and accused him of using city students as "political pawns."
She said that state test scores released this week for elementary and middle schools clearly demonstrated that many schools throughout Maryland -- in Montgomery, Prince George's, Anne Arundel and other counties -- are struggling to meet increasingly more stringent federal standards. She said Ehrlich was clearly being political by only attacking the city schools.
"It's seems to be a statewide problem," she said. "People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."
City Councilman Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr., a Northeast Baltimore Democrat and Ehrlich ally, said the governor is trying to show voters that he has been interested in helping city schools for years but that his attempts have been rebuffed by the mayor and Democratic leaders in Annapolis.
"The governor is willing to help these schools," D'Adamo said. "He's willing to help, and the city is saying, 'No.' "
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who proposed the takeover of the city schools, and who has generally allied with Ehrlich on education issues, said the original terms of the city-state partnership anticipated a situation such as this one, in which the applications process for city school board seats would be reopened.
"The concerns the governor expressed at least require consideration because of the lack of progress in the city schools," she said.
But Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. agreed with O'Malley's assessment that Ehrlich has not been a partner in helping local jurisdictions on many issues.
"I have no input with the governor with respect to school board appointments," Smith said. "He doesn't work with Baltimore County, and I'm the country executive of his home county."
Grasmick acknowledged that in the current political climate it would be difficult to get the mayor and the governor to agree on candidates. but she said that the effort needs to be made anyway.
"That is our primary responsibility, to serve the schoolchildren of Baltimore City," she said.
Ehrlich said the outcome of this election will erase all doubts that he has a mandate to change the city schools. But the odds that his letter will result in more immediate changes are slim, he acknowledged.
"Who knows?" he said. "Miracles happen."
Hilary Spence, a Democrat who is president of the Talbot County Council and a candidate for state Senate, said she believes that many voters on the Eastern Shore know that O'Malley has "the toughest job in the state" and that he is doing everything he can to help the city schools make progress.
She said Ehrlich has no room to completely blame O'Malley for Baltimore's school problems. "I thought the state and the city share control of the city schools," Spence said.
John Quinn of Ocean City -- a former legislative aide and supporter of Lt. Gov Michael S. Steele's Senate bid -- said he is backing O'Malley for governor even though he voted for Ehrlich in 2002. He greeted O'Malley yesterday at the city's booth at the conference and told the mayor that a check he donated to him at an Ocean City fundraiser recently still hadn't been cashed. That prompted the mayor to immediately tap out a note on his digital assistant to retrieve an answer.
He said he was going to support O'Malley because he feels the mayor is more responsive to citizens' concerns than Ehrlich.
"I like Bob Ehrlich. I like Bob's dad. I supported him in Congress," Quinn said.
But, he added, he is voting for O'Malley.