Grasmick deal 'a nice exhale'

The Baltimore Sun

Legislators breathed a sigh of relief yesterday at the news that Gov. Martin O'Malley had abandoned his attempt to oust state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick, knowing they wouldn't be forced to choose between loyalty to the governor and to constituents who had no interest in seeing the superintendent fired.

Top General Assembly leaders and aides to the governor have asserted that a bill seeking to nullify her recently renewed contract would have passed, but rank-and-file members were less certain that enough legislators would have signed on to fire her at a time when Maryland schools are ranked among the nation's best.

"I would have to say that it's a nice exhale for all of us who didn't want to have to deal with what was going to be a political controversy at a time when we all want to be dealing with policy," said Del. Jon S. Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat. "It was a question of people's conscience against their need to work with people in the future. It was a difficult position for a lot of people to be put in."

Monday's detente has given O'Malley more sway over state education policy as Grasmick agreed to pursue some of his objectives. For Grasmick, the truce surely will add yet another chapter to the story of her unusual survival in a Cabinet-level post through the administrations of four governors, this time despite the ire of the most powerful trio in Annapolis.

O'Malley, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller all had urged the State Board of Education not to renew Grasmick's contract in December, believing she had been too closely aligned with former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and went too far in attempting the takeover of 11 troubled city schools during the heat of the 2006 gubernatorial contest.

There are a variety of reasons some General Assembly members were reluctant to vote against her. For starters, some legislators have said, it may have turned voters off to see more than 100 lawmakers vote to fire someone who had served the state for so long.

"The constituents I heard from did not want the change to happen," said Del. Dana M. Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat. "People that called or e-mailed me to express their views on this felt the process should not be changed to displace Dr. Grasmick."

Despite her closeness to Ehrlich, Grasmick has many strong political allies in the legislature, many of whom lobbied in the past week for a compromise between her and top state leaders. Possibly adding to her political clout is the $70,664 in campaign contributions she, her husband and family members gave since 1999 to more than 30 state candidates.

Some legislators also were reluctant to risk a backlash for a move that had a chance of being successfully challenged in court. Maryland laws and regulations allow the state board to get rid of a superintendent only "for cause." Even if the firing held, the board likely would have had to negotiate a buyout that could have reached nearly $800,000, or four years' worth of her $195,000 annual salary.

Avoiding what had been developing into an ugly and bitter fight, Grasmick agreed to pursue three O'Malley education initiatives, none of which is likely to stir the pot: supporting and training good principals, doing a biannual survey of teachers statewide and providing better career and technology programs in the state's high schools.

The most unusual of the proposals is O'Malley's plan to collect data from anonymous, online teacher surveys that could be used to direct change in Maryland schools, said Pat Foerster, the governor's education policy adviser.

Results from similar surveys in North Carolina led administrators to give teachers more planning periods there.

This year, every principal will be evaluated in part on how good a job they do of recruiting teachers and keeping them satisfied.

The other two O'Malley initiatives are not new to Grasmick. The state already requires students to take a year of technology education to graduate from high school, but O'Malley wants to ensure that every student who graduates and does not plan to go to college immediately has a skill that can be used to get a job, Foerster said.

Grasmick and the state board have long looked at supporting principals as one of the keys to improving schools. O'Malley, who on the campaign trail proposed bonuses for good principals, believes good principals often become magnets for good teachers who want support from their administrators, Foerster said.

State Sen. Bobby Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said switching the focus to such policies would be a welcome change.

"If any personal issues could have gotten in the way of doing what's right for the kids, I'm glad that seems to be behind us," he said. "We're focused on making sure that state education dollars are being spent wisely. We have a lot of challenges in the legislature that are way beyond personal issues, and that should be the focus."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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