Trying to bury the hatchet

The Baltimore Sun

Gov. Martin O'Malley abruptly abandoned his effort to force out state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick yesterday, appearing with her at the State House to announce that they had agreed to bury their differences and work together on education policy.

Sitting down beside Grasmick to face reporters, O'Malley said he had asked legislative leaders not to pursue a bill that would have effectively nullified the State Board of Education's recent renewal of her contract.

Some legislative leaders said last week that it was unclear whether there was sufficient support in the General Assembly for an effort to force Grasmick out, suggesting that even if O'Malley succeeded in replacing her, he probably would have had to use a great deal of political capital to do so.

Grasmick also agreed yesterday to pursue several of O'Malley's educational priorities that she had not previously embraced.

"Over the course of the last year, 13 months, we have all heard the words consensus and coming together and phrases like 'putting the divisions of the past behind us,'" O'Malley said with a smile.

"Well, in that spirit, Dr. Grasmick and I have had a real good talk ... about the need to come together and work to improve education for the future."

The rapprochement came as a surprise to those in Maryland's political and education circles, and speculation swirled yesterday about what might have led to the sudden display of amity. The two have been feuding since O'Malley's days as mayor of Baltimore, when she attempted to take control of 11 troubled city schools.

Several people involved in the discussions said that a behind-the-scenes effort had been under way for weeks to reach a compromise, perhaps by finding a way for the longtime superintendent to depart on her own terms. But Grasmick insisted yesterday that she has no intention of quitting.

She responded "absolutely" when asked yesterday whether she still planned to serve out her recently renewed contract.

Grasmick, who has supervised the state's public schools under four governors, has survived attempts to oust her before. This time, she appears to have overcome the ire of the governor, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch.

The two top leaders in the General Assembly had urged the State Board of Education not to reappoint her before her current term ends June 30 - a day before O'Malley appointees are scheduled to take control. The board renewed her contract anyway, angering O'Malley, Busch and Miller.

But The Sun reported last week that House leaders were seeking to defuse the conflict between O'Malley and Grasmick, even as the Senate president's staff was drafting a bill that could have led to her ouster.

Rick Abbruzzese, O'Malley's spokesman, said after the news conference that the governor believed that the bill had sufficient support to pass.

But Busch and other leaders in his chamber expressed reservations last week about moving forward with the bill amid the O'Malley-Grasmick conflict. Busch has said he believes the state schools chief's job should be subject to more oversight by elected officials but he didn't want to see a policy question devolve into a fight of personalities.

Busch said yesterday that legislation to oust Grasmick would have been "hotly contested," though he thinks it ultimately would have passed.

"Would it have been the best resolution?" Busch said. "Possibly not. I mean, is it better to discuss how can we go forward, or is it better to draw a line in the sand?"

Busch said he favored "resolution over confrontation."

Miller said yesterday that a face-to-face meeting between O'Malley and Grasmick thawed their relationship.

"What we need to do is lower the rhetoric," Miller said. "The governor has had an opportunity to rethink his position, and they've had an opportunity to clear up their differences."

He added that the General Assembly still needs to address the fact that the makeup of the State Board of Education allows for lame-duck appointments. He said lawmakers might take up a bill next year changing the timing of superintendent appointments.

State education leaders said they were relieved to see the conflict end.

"I would say that the principle of political independence is a very good thing when a superintendent has to make a tough decision on behalf of children," said Betty Morgan, superintendent of schools of Washington County.

O'Malley said the two had agreed on the need to push three initiatives: surveying teachers for suggestions on how to improve instruction in the state, expanding career and technical course offerings in high schools and stepping up efforts to attract and retain good principals.

"I'm excited to work with the governor," Grasmick said. "I think this is a wonderful opportunity to pursue all of our mutual initiatives on behalf of the students we serve. So, it's a good day."

State Board of Education President Dunbar Brooks said he is glad to see O'Malley and Grasmick working together.

"It is a difficult situation when the state superintendent and the governor are not on the same page," Brooks said. "You would like to have a united leadership. They do need each other."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Laura Smitherman contributed to this article.

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