City delegate proposes mayoral control of city schools

A state legislator is proposing to abolish the current structure of the Baltimore school system and return its reins to the mayor under legislation due to come before the Maryland General Assembly in January.

The bill, pre-filed last week by Del. Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. of the city's 44th District, would designate the mayor as the chief decision-maker of the school system, which would be operated under a mayor-appointed superintendent and the superintendent's Cabinet. The school board's responsibilities would shift from a governing body to an advisory role.

The move would shake up the structure of the school system that was established in 1997 when the city relinquished power over its beleaguered schools for a large infusion of cash from the state. Under the partnership, the state and city share the responsibility of funding the city schools, and the governor and mayor jointly appoint the school board that governs the system.

"There was a partnership established, but no accountability," Mitchell said. "And since then, one of the biggest frustrations has been the pointing of fingers."

"The mayor controls every other major entity in the city, except the schools, which are tied to everything," he said. "Now is the time to have that conversation. The City of Baltimore has to have control of our destiny with regard to how our schools are run."

Mitchell said he's looking for the level of accountability that's seen in districts like that of Washington, D.C., where the mayor may have lost an election last year over his decisions about how to run the school system, including appointing its long-embattled former chancellor,Michelle Rhee.

Mitchell said that the legislation did not reflect his beliefs about the performance of current schools CEO Andrés Alonso. "Dr. Alonso's a reform agent, and doing a good job, but he's not going to be here forever," he said. "This is beyond Dr. Alonso."

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she does not support the move, given the absence of an analysis of its impact on the school system's funding, about 70 percent of which comes from the state. Ryan O'Doherty said the mayor believes that "seeking to change the governance structure inside a vacuum without full consideration of all factors is unwise."

"[The mayor] is only concerned about improving academic results for students — and that very much depends on continued state funding support," he said.

Mitchell said the state is constitutionally obligated to fund the school system, so that wouldn't be a factor.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Martin O'Malley would not comment because his office had not seen or analyzed the bill. However, O'Malley championed a similar platform when he was mayor of Baltimore.

The legislation resurrects an effort by Mitchell in his last term on the City Council in 2006 — the year the city school system noted a devastating $58 million deficit, nearly depleting the city's rainy-day fund — and in his education platform in his 2007 run for mayor, which he lost to Sheila Dixon.

"To this day no one has been held accountable for almost bankrupting the city," Mitchell said.

While the system has made notable progress since the city-state partnership and in recent years, Mitchell said, questions about whom to hold accountable for its lingering shortcomings still remain.

Mitchell said he does not support an elected school board, a topic discussed every year in the General Assembly, because it would be too political. He said the proposed school board structure, in its advisory role, would also need to be a more diverse mixture of parents and policy voices.

Neil Duke, president of the city school board, said the current structure has brought more stability to the system than it has seen in years. He also worried about how a new structure would affect the system's funding.

"To rehash talking points from prior administrations, prior boards, isn't the most fruitful conversation and ignores the progress that we've made over the last few years," Duke said. "If we were still producing 2006 results, then I would get it. But that's not the story of Baltimore City right now."

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