Battle for Md.'s schools

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's state school board defied warnings by legislative leaders and voted in private yesterday afternoon to renew schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's contract for another four years.

The decision, made after a three-hour executive session in Baltimore, immediately drew angry threats from legislative leaders in Annapolis, setting up the possibility of a long battle between the state board and the General Assembly over who will direct education policy.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller had sent a letter to the board Monday urging it not to reappoint Grasmick. Yesterday, they strongly suggested that the Assembly might take up legislation in January to overturn the action or change the appointments process.

State board President Dunbar Brooks declined to explain the board's decision, saying only that the board was within its legal rights to renew Grasmick's contract because state law says it should make the appointment before July 1.

But Miller disagreed. "This board has done the state of Maryland a huge disservice, and Nancy Grasmick has done the state of Maryland a huge disservice," he said. "It'll be a very sore wound that will fester and will be excised either by litigation or legislation."

For her part, Grasmick, 68, said she was gratified by the decision and she had more work to do in the job she has held for 16 years.

Legislative leaders said the board's action eliminates public accountability from one of the most important - and expensive - functions of state government.

Three of the board's 12 members are lame-duck appointees who are expected to leave office as Grasmick's new contract begins July 1. It is unclear which lame-duck appointees, if any, voted to renew the contract.

Miller characterized yesterday's vote as a move by "hanger-ons" appointed by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to embarrass Gov. Martin O'Malley. The governor, Miller said, is entitled to have his appointees in place if he is to be held accountable.

O'Malley, who has made it clear that he wants Grasmick out of the job, appoints the board but does not have power to appoint the superintendent. He is charged with appointing three board members to terms that begin July 1 - and issued a statement yesterday that he would announce their names today. When they take their seats in July, O'Malley will have appointed a majority of the board.

Two years ago, Grasmick angered O'Malley, then Baltimore's mayor, by attempting a state takeover of 11 city schools. The General Assembly passed legislation blocking her move.

Yesterday, after Brooks announced, "The board in executive session made a decision to renew the contract of the state superintendent," several dozen staff members in the audience stood, cheered and applauded.

Grasmick thanked the board and said, "I am absolutely dedicated to the children and the adults we serve through this department. ... I respect this board more than I can say."

Later, Brooks said the board had taken "into serious consideration that letter from the legislature" but said the Attorney General's Office had informed the board that it could go ahead.

The board has staggered four-year terms, so every year there are new members. Any appointment, Brooks said, will always be made by a board whose members can change the following year.

The board, he said, had an open discussion of every possible course of action. He refused to say how many members voted for or against renewing the contract, but he did suggest there was division:

"We have a board that is very passionate about their convictions."

Other board members said they had agreed to keep the details of the discussion confidential.

But Rosa Garcia, who was appointed by O'Malley, said later, "I feel I was denied an opportunity to do a thorough review of this issue to provide oversight and accountability."

Legislative leaders had argued in their letter to the board that common law dictated that a "lame-duck" board could not make an appointment.

They also questioned a board policy, adopted in 2005, to make a decision seven months before the end of Grasmick's term. The three previous times her contract has been renewed, the board has acted far in advance, sometimes by almost a year.

Liz Rameen, an assistant attorney general who advises the board, said the letter didn't fully reflect the view of the Attorney General's Office. Maryland statute, she said, supersedes the common law that the legislature is concerned about.

The question remains whether the new board could get rid of Grasmick after July. Local school boards have great latitude to dismiss a superintendent. But the state board may remove an incumbent superintendent only for immorality, misconduct in office, insubordination, incompetency or willful neglect of duty.

Grasmick hinted that she didn't believe she could be ousted: "I don't think people can fault my performance. They may not like me personally ... I don't feel people can say I don't work hard and that I haven't achieved."

The legislature could change the law, however, to say that the superintendent serves at the will of the board.

Grasmick seemed unconcerned about the possibility of working with a new board that O'Malley had appointed.

"I would hope that people who come on the board would not come on with an antagonistic attitude but would have a fair evaluation of the work of this department," she said.

In the past, though, she said, she has been able to turn around board members who came in with "that attitude." If she found herself working for an antagonistic board, she said, she would "have to evaluate it on a day-by-day or month-by-month basis."

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