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For accountability, put mayor in charge of schools

The Baltimore Sun

The ancient Romans had a tradition, according to C. Michael Armstrong, former chief executive of AT&T;: Whenever one of their engineers constructed an arch, as the capstone was hoisted into place, the engineer assumed accountability for his work in the most profound way possible - he stood under the arch.

When it comes to Baltimore public schools, we need someone willing to stand under the arch. The time has come for one person to accept responsibility for our school system, and that person must be accountable to the families of this city. It must be the mayor.

This need has never been clearer. Upon learning recently of errors and discrepancies in the school budget - a budget unanimously adopted by the school board - no single person stood up and took responsibility. Moreover, no single person took immediate responsibility for fixing the problem. We never did learn whether the city's finance director, an assistant state superintendent for business services, or an independent auditor would help rectify the problem.

Baltimore is not the only city to face the problems of a school system organized so that no one person assumes responsibility for school performance. Late last month, our neighbors to the south voted to place control of the Washington, D.C., school system in the hands of newly elected Mayor Adrian M. Fenty as part of an effort to increase accountability and improve school management. By giving its mayor control of the school system, Washington will join cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago.

Baltimore schools are governed by a city-state partnership established in 1997. The partnership promised more funds to our struggling schools and reorganized management so we now have a governing Board of Commissioners, jointly appointed by the mayor and governor.

When the General Assembly approved the partnership, many hailed it as the mechanism that would finally raise the level of student achievement and improve management and administration. Instead, we saw a reduction in the passing grade for key subjects, and we had to bail our schools out of near-bankruptcy. Baltimore schools might have made marginal improvements under the partnership, but what we are doing is not good enough for our children.

Issues of accountability continue to beleaguer our system. Because of the city-state partnership, the school system answers to neither the state nor the city. City officials are forced to deal with crime, unemployment and other ills that arise from the shortcomings of our schools. But the mayor's authority over the schools is limited to the appointment of board members, a power shared with the governor.

Unlike other city agencies, which can look to the mayor and City Hall as sources of authority, the school system answers to no one. Local government has been cut from oversight, providing for a tenuous situation in which elected city officials who are nearest to the problems are often powerless to solve them. For example, last year, the Tax and Finance Committee that I led approved millions in bond money for capital improvements of the schools, and the school system said it would spend the money one way but spent it another way.

With the system under the mayor's control, the City Council would have an avenue to redress these transgressions.

This lack of accountability affects our students' learning, and Baltimore needs to act soon to turn our schools around. In two years, beginning with the Class of 2009, Baltimore's high school students will need to pass the Maryland High School Assessment test before they can graduate. Last year, only 37.3 percent of our high school sophomores passed that same test in English, and 36.8 percent in math. Will you be satisfied when only 37 percent of our students graduate?

Plenty of research suggests that mayoral control is the best hope for urban schools. After Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took over schools in New York City, fourth-grade math scores rose 32 percent. According to Brown University Professor Kenneth K. Wong, before Mayor Richard M. Daley took over Chicago schools, about 25 percent of children in kindergarten through eighth grade performed at or above national norms in reading; now the number stands close to 50 percent. A study co-authored by Mr. Wong found that in Cleveland, under mayoral control, proficiency in mathematics among fourth-graders rose from 22 percent to 44 percent, and among sixth-graders from 12 percent to 24 percent.

In addition to gains in student achievement, schools in Boston, New York and Chicago have avoided teacher strikes and had longer-tenured superintendents since their mayors took over their school system.

By putting the mayor in control of our schools, we can address the looming crisis of 2009 and act quickly. It is time for us to step out from behind the city-state partnership - a partnership that makes it too easy for the state to wait for Baltimore to act and for Baltimore to wait for the state to act.

Making this change will require persuading the General Assembly to amend the city-state partnership. The task is not insurmountable, particularly with a governor who is familiar with the issues faced by our city's schools. After the legislation is passed, the mayor would be able to centralize school system administration within City Hall under a chancellor, nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

Further, by ending the partnership, the mayor would be in a position to reorganize our schools so principals and their teams would have the opportunity to design the programs that their students need to succeed. Offering principals an opportunity to truly lead their schools toward success means giving them control over what matters most: staffing, instructional strategies and budget. With that power will come accountability, of course.

Concentrating control of our school system in City Hall would enable us to make the innovations necessary to thwart the 2009 crisis, and it would return accountability - and eventually, public confidence - to a school system that for too long has gone without both.

Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. represents the 11th District on the Baltimore City Council and is a mayoral candidate. His e-mail is kmitchell@baltimorecitycouncil.com.

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