As General Assembly leaders considered ways to reverse the State Board of Education's decision to renew Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's contract, Gov. Martin O'Malley announced yesterday three nominees for the board who could eventually give him the leverage he needs to oust her.
Grasmick has stayed in power for 16 years, thanks in part to strong backing in the legislature. But even as many lawmakers praised Grasmick's service, leading lawmakers said yesterday that they would consider changing state law to make it easier to fire her.
O'Malley, who clashed with Grasmick when he was mayor of Baltimore and she attempted a takeover of 11 city schools, had made clear that he wants a state schools superintendent more in sync with his views.
Once O'Malley's new picks take office in July, his appointees would control the board. Yesterday, nominees did not directly answer questions about whether they thought Grasmick should be replaced, but they said they supported the governor's desire for a new direction in education policy.
"The governor feels that he should have the right to have his own person in the office," said state board nominee Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality. "I am sure that it is an issue that the legislature is likely to take up, and if not, the new board may have to look at it."
O'Malley declined to answer questions yesterday about Grasmick's appointment.
Grasmick's current four-year contract is set to expire July 1, but the board voted in a closed-door meeting Tuesday to give her another term.
Legislative leaders had asked the board not to renew Grasmick's contract until O'Malley's appointees outnumbered those selected by former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican defeated by O'Malley last year. Though Grasmick is a Democrat who was appointed by then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer, she had close personal and political ties to Ehrlich.
In response to Tuesday's action, lawmakers said they will consider legislation to allow the state board to fire the superintendent at will.
Many local school boards have the power to buy out the contracts of their superintendents. Currently, the state school superintendent can only be terminated for cause.
Grasmick has supporters in the legislature. State Sen. Janet Greenip, an Anne Arundel County Republican, said she has disagreed with Grasmick over the years on standardized testing policy, but she said it's impossible to argue with the progress Maryland students have made under her tenure.
If Democrats remove her, they would rob the superintendent's position of independence, Greenip said.
"They're taking something that in the past they really worked to make ... not political and politicize it," Greenip said.
But many of the Democrats who control the legislature say that it was Grasmick who brought politics into the equation. Particularly, they mention her decision to attempt a takeover of 11 underperforming Baltimore City schools in the middle of the gubernatorial race between Ehrlich and O'Malley.
"I certainly have some concerns about how [Grasmick] operated in closing the Baltimore City schools when there was not so much as a phone call or communication with the superintendent of the Baltimore City schools, with the Baltimore City mayor or with the General Assembly," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "There have to be checks and balances to the system."
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the Prince George's Democrat who is chairman of the Senate's education subcommittee, said Grasmick has had good ideas in terms of education accountability but has acted too autonomously at times, not taking into account the views of those affected by her decisions. He said he would consider legislation giving the board the power to fire her at will.
"We understand [that] the people who voted for her in there were Governor Ehrlich's appointees, and it very well could have been different if they had waited until July 1," Pinsky said. "Some other people would have taken a different path."
Of the three nominees, Walsh is best known in Maryland education circles. While working for the Abell Foundation, she launched the Ingenuity Project, a program in some city schools for gifted math and science students.
Walsh, 50, of Catonsville, whose youngest child is a senior at Catonsville High School, also started the Baraka School, a boarding school that transferred at-risk boys to Africa for their education.
Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, president and chief executive officer of Ivan Walks and Associates and former chief health officer for the District of Columbia, said he has taught at the college level and has worked to bring health education into the schools. He said he supports using tests to ensure educational accountability - a major focus of Grasmick's tenure - but that he wants to help bring a new direction to Maryland schools.
"I have had a conversation with the governor, and ... I certainly did get the impression that he is interested in having the persons he nominates to the board, myself included, bring with them energy and ideas and look toward a new vision for education," said Walks, 51, of Potomac.
The third nominee, James H. DeGraffenreidt Jr., is chairman of the board and chief executive officer of WGL Holdings Inc., the parent company of Washington Gas. DeGraffenreidt, 54, said in an e-mail that he hopes to bring a business perspective to the board and to advance O'Malley's vision for education.
The state school board rarely disagreed with any of the policies Grasmick asked it to sign off on until four new members appointed by O'Malley joined the board in July. Since then, the board has wrestled with the question of whether to change a planned new requirement that students pass the high school assessments to get a diploma, beginning in 2009.
The board voted 8 to 4 to keep the requirement but to create an alternate route to graduation, a project. The vote pitted the four new members appointed by O'Malley against the eight old members.
The new members also have been much more critical and questioning of the superintendent's presentations during open board meetings.
Matthew Joseph, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth, said the issues over Grasmick might be delaying O'Malley's ability to bring reform.
"We are concerned that important initiatives promised by the governor as a candidate, like incentives to attract good principals to challenging schools and alternatives to school suspensions, may be delayed until he has confidence in the person who is state superintendent," Joseph said.
But Grasmick has dedicated backers. Since the debate over her reappointment began on Monday, she has received dozens of calls and e-mails from supporters around the state and the country, including local superintendents, leaders of educational organizations around the country and business people in Maryland.
Cecil County schools Superintendent Carl D. Roberts said Grasmick has support among local education leaders in the state.
He said he hopes that leaders in Annapolis won't carry the conflict to the point that it begins hurting the education of schoolchildren, but he said their involvement in the selection of the state superintendent is troubling.
"I think any time you allow anyone outside that process to have undue influence, you have a serious problem," Roberts said.