Mayor Catherine Pugh proposes legislation that would allow the city to control the school board. (Michael Dresser/Baltimore Sun video)
It was a strange set of circumstances that led to the joint-governance arrangement between the city and state for Baltimore's public schools. Twenty years ago, Baltimore was suing the state to try to get more funds for education. The state counter-sued, alleging that the school system wasn't doing a good job of managing the state funds it already got. The legislature got involved, and the most powerful critic of the city schools wasn't some suburban lawmaker but Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, the powerful Appropriations Committee chairman from Baltimore (and father of future Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake). He and another city legislator, Sen. Barbara Hoffman, struck a deal by which the state would withhold millions from city schools the next year if then-Mayor Kurt Schmoke and then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening — who had previously been staunch allies — could work out a new governance structure that would force reforms aimed at improving student achievement. They had a deal, then they didn't. Slot machine gambling politics were involved because, well, aren't they always? Threats were made, Governor Glendening's re-election prospects dimmed, and things were headed back to court, but eventually the mayor and governor agreed to jointly appoint the members of the city school board, who would then hire the superintendent, in exchange for an extra $254 million for the district over the next five years.
What does all this have to do with the current situation facing Baltimore schools? Not much, and that's the point. The reforms Rawlings and others were pushing for at the time have been overtaken multiple times by new superintendents and new state and federal education mandates. The city school system was, at the time, exempt from a wide body of state regulations, but it is no longer. And the extra cash the city got was subsumed by the complete re-vamping of Maryland's education funding system the state adopted pursuant to the recommendations of the Thornton Commission several years later.
Meanwhile, the notion that the governor would be more involved in the running of the schools has turned out to be a sham. Mayors propose board members, and governors agree. Nobody from Annapolis is going over the books on North Avenue or even exercising influence over who is hired to lead the system, at least not to the degree that shared governance would imply.
What the joint appointments of school board members has done, though, is to muddy lines of accountability. Mayors have not been held clearly accountable for the performance or management of the city schools, and governors certainly haven't. Mayor Catherine Pugh has wants to change that, and she is pushing legislation to give her and her successors sole authority to choose the nine appointed members of the board. (Two newly created elected positions on the board would remain unaffected.)
We don't need a mayor directly running the day-to-day operations of the system, and her legislation wouldn't do that. But the system's current predicament — a $129 million projected budget deficit for next year, itself just the latest in a long series of budget troubles — underscores the need for a more direct line between City Hall and North Avenue. That could lead to sharing of resources and greater efficiencies, but it could also give Ms. Pugh and her successors a greater stake in the district's health. Mayors have also not made it a priority to increase the share of system funding that comes from the city — one of the lowest such rates in the state. Mayor Pugh has pledged to change that, too, and providing her with more clear accountability for the system is the best way to make sure she follows through.
Some elements of the 1997 law remain useful. Before then, city school board appointments had too often been viewed as patronage jobs, leading to low quality oversight, and the new system addressed that in a couple of ways. One was the establishment of qualifications for board members — four must have substantial experience running a business, nonprofit or government agency, three must "possess a high level of knowledge about education," one must be a parent of a city schools student, and at least one must have knowledge or experience in educating students with disabilities. That stays in the legislation Mayor Pugh has proposed.
A second key point in the 1997 law is the role of the Maryland State Department of Education in vetting candidates. Some board applicants in the past exaggerated or outright falsified their qualifications, and MSDE played an important role in ferreting them out.
The new system Mayor Pugh proposes includes the creation of a new advisory board to recommend candidates to the mayor. Its structure is admirably independent and balanced — it includes no mayoral appointees and just one member of the city council, and it has members selected by teachers and administrators unions but also the ACLU, disability rights groups, charter schools, the PTA and other stakeholders. Still, it may lack the resources to do proper background checks on applicants, and it would be wise for the panel to continue to rely on MSDE for that service.