In a spirited discussion broadcast on a popular morning radio program, five Baltimore mayoral candidates squared off yesterday in the closest they have come to a debate, arguing - and at times sniping at one another - over crime, housing and education.
A month out from the Sept. 11 Democratic primary election, the leading candidates faced one another on WOLB-AM's Larry Young Morning Show, and four of them - all but incumbent Mayor Sheila Dixon - vowed to significantly alter the way schools are governed.
With the exception of crime, few issues in the race have received as much attention as education. And in contrast with some portions of their platforms, the candidates have proposed widely varied solutions to deal with under-performing schools.
Three of the candidates - including schools administrator Andrey Bundley and Del. Jill P. Carter - called for a partially elected school board. Pointing to New York and Chicago as examples of success, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. wants Baltimore to get behind a similar mayoral takeover of its school system.
"The failed leadership of the city has stuck to this city-state partnership that they know is failing our kids," said Carter, who has sponsored legislation in the General Assembly to create a partially elected board. "Even the kids who graduate are not prepared for college or work."
Dixon, who became mayor in January to serve out the remainder of Gov. Martin O'Malley's mayoral term, has taken a more nuanced position. The mayor wants to assess the city-state partnership this year before deciding what should be done next, she has said. But even her rhetoric yesterday leaned toward a shake-up.
"The buck has to stop somewhere and right now, when most of the finger-pointing is done, it's done at the city, even though the school system is a separate entity," Dixon said during the two-hour debate. "We need to determine whether or not we continue the partnership with the state and the city."
The governor and the mayor jointly appoint the nine-member city school board. But neither has the power to control the system's budget or to pick its chief executive. Because those powers are held by the board, no elected official is accountable for the system's actions, Mitchell said.
"At what point are we going to stop assessing the school city-state partnership that's been going for 10 years? We need to have the political will to reform our schools," Mitchell said. "It shouldn't be acceptable that we have the third-lowest graduation rate."
Discussion over education yesterday spun into a heated exchange between Carter and Dixon that continued for most of the debate - including when the microphones were turned off during commercial breaks. Carter attempted to blame Dixon for not supporting her efforts in the legislature to end the partnership, and the mayor faulted Carter for lack of state education funding.
"Sheila Dixon didn't even come one single time to address the Baltimore delegation during the last session - not one single time," Carter said. "She had some receptions, but she never addressed us with issues."
Dixon fired back minutes later.
"Jill Carter didn't see me down there because she wasn't there at any meeting. She has the worst record," Dixon said. "It's public record. You need to look at where you vote, whether you're in session or not. I have been down to the legislature since I have become mayor and she wasn't at one meeting that I attended."
Despite what appears to be a growing call among the candidates for some form of change, few of the ideas proposed by the candidates could be accomplished without approval from the General Assembly and the governor - approval that many believe would be hard to achieve.
Though O'Malley has said he is open to more local control of schools, it is not clear why the legislature would agree to relinquish what control it has over a system the state is largely responsible for funding.
City Hall had control of schools before 1997. A lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland over school funding ultimately led to the current partnership. The schools were far from problem-free under the prior era of mayoral control and the state demanded more oversight in exchange for more funding.
"I think people should ask what a mayor can do to help the schools, but I don't know whether the answer to that is that the structure is the problem," said Bebe Verdery, director of the ACLU's Education Reform Project - a nonpartisan group that will not endorse a candidate in the mayor's race. "The problem has been a lack of resources. The problem has been management issues and lack of oversight."
Mayors, she said, can increase the city's share of funding for school operations - a portion of the city's budget that has remained virtually flat for years. City government can also help direct the management of school buildings - which are owned by the city - and advocate for the system in Annapolis.
Brian Morris, chairman of the city school board, said there are factors beyond just the structure of how schools are managed that affect the system. If the right people are calling the shots, he said, it doesn't matter whether they're sitting at City Hall, the State House or both.
"The issue of control is less important than who's at the table," Morris said. "You can have mayoral control of the school system and if that mayor is not a strong supporter and advocate ... it won't be successful. Conversely, the partnership as it stands, if you don't have the right people around the table, then that won't be successful."
Socialist A. Robert Kaufman, who is also running in the Democratic primary, appeared at the WOLB studio yesterday and was not allowed to participate. Kaufman, along with businessman Mike Schaefer and PTA President Phillip A. Brown Jr., was invited to appear on the show this morning.
A recent poll conducted for The Sun showed that 47 percent of likely Democratic voters support Dixon for mayor, with 15 percent saying they would vote for Mitchell and 28 percent undecided. Bundley got 4 percent while Carter and Frank M. Conaway, clerk of Baltimore's circuit court, received 2 percent each.
Conaway said yesterday he would support a fully elected school board. Bundley, who received a third of the vote against O'Malley in the 2003 primary election, said a mix of elected board members, who would be accountable to voters, and appointed members, who would be education experts, would be the best option.
"I like the idea of democracy with a majority elected school board but when you look at the issues of accountability that we're having you have to have individuals who are experts," he said.