Truce sought in Grasmick dispute

The Baltimore Sun

Top lawmakers in the House of Delegates said yesterday that they want to defuse the public confrontation between Gov. Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, and some are wary of changing state laws that insulate the top educator's position from politics.

Grasmick's long tenure as schools superintendent is still in danger - Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller is drafting legislation to nullify the State Board of Education's recent renewal of her contract.

Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes efforts are under way to persuade Grasmick to resign to avoid a lengthy fight that could damage her reputation or weaken the independence of her successors, according to those involved with the negotiations.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch said yesterday that he wants to subject the superintendent's position to added scrutiny by lawmakers but does not want to see a fight in the legislature over Grasmick.

He said he would favor shelving Miller's bill if Grasmick were to announce her intention to retire at some future date.

"I do think there ought to be a review of how the structure is set up, and I think what's happening right now is actually that the personalities are impeding what should be a positive dialogue about how to improve the system," Busch said.

Other key lawmakers were more direct in their concerns about Miller's approach.

"We as lawmakers should not fall in line behind either side, Grasmick or the administration," said Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat and key O'Malley ally. "What we need to be careful of doing is passing any bill ... that would interfere with how our future superintendents of schools are selected."

O'Malley clashed with Grasmick when he was mayor of Baltimore, particularly in 2006 when she attempted to take control of 11 troubled city schools. The General Assembly passed legislation blocking her move.

More recently, O'Malley has called her a "pawn of the Republican Party."

Miller and Busch urged the State Board of Education not to reappoint her before her current term ends in June - a day before O'Malley's appointees will take control. But the board renewed her contract anyway.

Grasmick vowed yesterday to resist pressure to resign, saying that would send the wrong message about the political independence of her office, which she has held for 16 years through Democratic and Republican administrations.

"I'm not willing to step down or resign because that's the same as politics pushing a person out," Grasmick said. "And no one has complained about the merit of my work."

Democratic legislators have complained that Grasmick politicized her office during Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration. Though Grasmick is a Democrat who was originally appointed during Gov. William Donald Schaefer's second term, she had close personal and political ties to Ehrlich. He asked her to be his running mate in his failed re-election bid against O'Malley, and she proposed the schools takeover during the heat of that race.

Miller said yesterday that O'Malley "needs somebody he can trust at his side. ... The continued divisiveness between the governor and superintendent does not serve anyone well."

O'Malley also remains interested in having a superintendent who is less independent of the state's elected leaders. Rick Abbruzzese, an O'Malley spokesman, said the governor has not seen Miller's bill but believes "the superintendent of schools should be held accountable to the State Board of Education and Maryland General Assembly through a review and evaluation process that doesn't currently exist."

In December, lawmakers said they would consider legislation to allow the state board to fire the superintendent at will. But three weeks into the General Assembly session, no such legislation has been introduced. Miller is working on a more nuanced approach, and it is not clear whether he has the support to enact even that.

Miller's bill would not change the board's current firing authority, which allows it to terminate a superintendent only for cause.

The bill - which is still being drafted - would extend Grasmick's current appointment from July through December, said Victoria Gruber, the Senate president's chief of staff. The State Board of Education would be controlled by O'Malley appointees by that time, and they would decide whether to retain Grasmick.

Under the bill, the superintendent would not automatically be part of the governor's Cabinet, Gruber said. She said the legislation is intended to codify the process to avoid lame-duck appointments.

The focus on Grasmick comes in the wake of an Education Week ranking that named Maryland's schools third-best in the nation, and the discontent among Democrats about their perception that Grasmick has been too political comes with a healthy dose of respect for the job she has done.

After meeting with Grasmick recently, Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., a St. Mary's County Democrat who chairs an education subcommittee, said he believes "she wants to leave the job with her head held high and deservedly so ... and other people have got that same sense."

He said: "She has served many years and many administrations and built a national reputation."

Busch said there are sound reasons for changing the laws governing the timing of the school board's appointment of a schools chief to more closely align with the terms of a governor's appointed board. But he said he does not want to hold a referendum on Grasmick.

"I do think that there is still a need to look at policy to make sure ... you don't run into these conflicts in the future," he said. "And that's not to say that Secretary Grasmick hasn't done a wonderful job and done some laudable things."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.

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