No magic bullet for schools

The Baltimore Sun

Second of three articles on issues in the campaign for mayor

Virtually all of Baltimore's mayoral candidates have made improving the public schools a central tenet of their campaigns, and with good reason: Voters rank education as one of the city's two most pressing issues, second only to crime.

Most of the seven Democratic candidates trying to unseat incumbent Sheila Dixon have proposed overhauling the way the system is governed, replacing the existing school board either with an elected board or with mayoral control.

But under any governance structure, it is the system's chief executive officer - not the mayor - who runs the daily operations of the schools. And none of the campaign promises amounts to the silver bullet necessary to fix the problems that have beset the city schools for decades, from a low graduation rate to an ongoing special education lawsuit.

"Currently, it's difficult to put direct responsibility on the mayor when the mayor does not have the day-to-day responsibility," said Donald C. Fry, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a prominent organization of business and civic leaders.

Under the existing structure, the mayor's power is limited to appointing the school board along with the governor and signing off on the annual operating budget.

Yet in every election cycle, mayors campaign on the successes of the city's schools, and their political rivals take them to task for educational failures. In last year's gubernatorial race, then-Mayor Martin O'Malley campaigned on the city's rising elementary school test scores. Then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., whom O'Malley defeated, backed a failed plan for outside takeovers of 11 middle and high schools.

There's no dispute that the health of a city and the health of its public school system are inextricably intertwined. And a large part of any mayor's job is making the city a place where families will come and stay - and the quality of public schools is often a key factor in those decisions.

For years, young professionals have moved to the suburbs when the time came for their children to enroll in school. Those with financial means, including O'Malley and Dixon, have sent their kids to private schools.

Baltimore has a handful of well-regarded public schools that keep middle-class families living in the city. They include Roland Park Elementary/Middle, Mount Washington Elementary and a crop of elite magnet high schools: Polytechnic Institute, City College, Western High and the School for the Arts. In the past few years, some of the city's new charter schools - public schools that operate independently - have also drawn families with the means to go elsewhere.

In the coming years, the city is aiming to attract some of the thousands of people who will be moving to Maryland as part of the nation's reshuffling of its military bases. Andres Alonso, the new chief executive officer of the city schools, recently told a subcommittee studying family recruitment that its plan should focus more on improving city education.

In a Sun poll last month of likely voters in the Sept. 11 Democratic primary, respondents asked to grade the city schools gave the system an average mark of D-plus, with 42 percent selecting D or F.

More than four in 10 of the poll respondents said the mayor should have more control over the city schools, with 20 percent saying they like the current structure, 19 percent saying the state should take over, and 20 percent unsure.

Until a decade ago, the Baltimore school system was an agency of city government, and the mayor had ultimate responsibility. Then in 1997, the city reluctantly ceded partial control to the state in exchange for increased funding - a structure that many of Dixon's challengers contend has left neither party accountable. When the school system suffered a financial meltdown in 2003, state officials blamed the city for failing to monitor the schools adequately, and the city blamed the state.

Now, City Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. - who was in second place to Dixon in last month's poll of likely primary voters - wants to return to mayoral control, a popular move in many big cities in recent years.

"Under mayoral control, you will have accountability," Mitchell said in a recent interview, calling the city-state partnership a "farce." He said he advocates a system similar to New York City's, where a chancellor reports to the mayor and the school board serves in an advisory capacity only.

But some education advocates say that reverting to mayoral control is unrealistic - and it didn't work the first time Baltimore tried it.

In the system's $1.1 billion budget for the current fiscal year, the state is paying $818 million, compared with $208 million from the city and $138 million from the federal government. That makes the state's share of the budget the largest of any jurisdiction in Maryland.

"The state is paying the lion's share of the funds, and when people pay they have some say, generally," said former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who helped draft the legislation that created the city-state partnership and poured hundreds of millions of state dollars into the city schools. "I don't see that turning it over to the mayor is a viable option in reality. I don't think it's a viable option because the mayor doesn't have the resources."

Despite the influx of state resources, Hoffman said, the city schools are still underfunded. "The state is not going to be pouring more money into a system where the state has nothing to say," she said.

Dixon has said she believes returning the city schools to the mayor's control might be the right move in time, as long as the state's financial contribution to the system would not be jeopardized.

Several of her other challengers want an elected school board, as many jurisdictions in Maryland have. Some candidates, such as schools administrator Andrey Bundley, want a partly elected board, while others, including Circuit Court Clerk Frank M. Conaway, want it entirely elected.

Proponents of an elected board say that parents are voiceless under the current system and should be the ones controlling their children's education. Critics point out that elected boards have not had a stellar track record in urban systems, where voter turnout is typically low, and are most effective when they can levy taxes, which they can't in Maryland.

Any change in the governance structure of the school system would have to be approved by the General Assembly, where a bill for an elected school board failed in the last session. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said in a radio appearance early this year that an elected school board is "the worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody."

"If I go to hell, it's going to be because I created an elected school board" in Prince George's County, he said.

O'Malley has indicated a willingness to consider returning control of Baltimore's schools to City Hall, but it is unclear how much support the proposal has in legislative chambers.

If the governance structure of the city schools were to change, it might cost the system its leader, Alonso, whose arrival this summer was hailed in the educational community. A former deputy chancellor in New York City, Alonso has four Ivy League degrees, three from Harvard University.

In deciding to leave New York for Baltimore, Alonso said, he based his decision on the authority the school board would vest in him. He insisted on language in his contract specifying that the school board would leave decisions big and small to him.

When Alonso's appointment was announced in June, he said he would not have accepted the board's offer if he weren't being given the power to "cut through the politics" that typically surround the city schools. Alonso has said he wants to stay in his new job for at least a decade, but he has indicated that he would leave if an elected board, a mayor or any other entity were to diminish his authority.

Few candidates beyond Del. Jill P. Carter have aggressively called for the city to devote a greater share of its budget to education - a tangible reform that is within a mayor's power. While the city's budget for the Police Department increases most years, its general fund contribution for school operations rose this year by only 0.08 percent, or $181,913. The city spends about 16 percent of its general fund budget on the public schools, compared with around 50 percent in some of the neighboring counties.

Last week, Dixon committed to spending $250 million to build as many as 10 new schools over the next decade. But she offered few details about where the schools would be built, when construction might begin and how particular schools would be paid for.

School board members, who are closing several buildings as enrollment declines and conditions deteriorate, have long promoted building new schools as a tangible way to improve public opinion of the system.

Tomorrow: Development issues in the campaign for mayor

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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