'97 flaws evident in schools' '04 woes

Sun Staff

The flaws in the 1997 law that set up a city-state partnership to run Baltimore's schools might seem crystal-clear in 2004. Even authors of the legislation admit that the system's fiscal woes have exposed its unrealistic expectations and lack of fiscal accountability.

At the time it passed, however, the measure was hailed as a monumental achievement - bringing together Democrats and Republicans, city liberals and rural conservatives in an effort to rescue a system that was foundering under city control.

After the decisive vote, one of the architects of the legislation was asked whether this bill could be the accomplishment of a lifetime. "I hope not," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings. "I plan to live quite a bit longer."

Rawlings, the longtime chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, died last year. Virtually every eulogy paid tribute to his efforts to save the city's schools.

This week, however, a three-member panel named by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick criticized "errors and omissions" in the legislation in a report on the fiscal crisis that nearly overwhelmed the system early this year.

"Hindsight is perfecto, isn't it?" said former Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, one of the leading champions of the bill. But the former chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee conceded that time had shown the bill's shortcomings.

"We presumed a certain level of cooperation we should have been more explicit about requiring," she said. "When it's everybody's responsibility, it's nobody's responsibility."

In March it took a $42 million bailout from the city's reserve funds - engineered by Mayor Martin O'Malley after he decided that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s price for state aid was too high - to allow the system to continue to meet its payroll.

The panel said the General Assembly overestimated the school system's ability to cope with its new responsibilities and misjudged the amount of help it would get from the city government after being removed from the latter's direct control. It faulted legislators for failing to devise a true oversight role for Grasmick's Maryland State Department of Education.

But on the night of April 5, 1997, as she nervously watched the final debate from the House of Delegates gallery, Grasmick wasn't complaining about a bill she had worked all session to pass. After the House finally voted 78-61 in favor of the bill, Grasmick hailed the result as "a wonderful victory for the children of Baltimore City."

Grasmick was hardly alone in her efforts. Gov. Parris N. Glendening used his influence to help push the bill through, with the firm if reluctant backing of then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Legislative leaders of both parties rallied behind the measure, crushing a revolt by Washington-area legislators. For the most part, opponents fought the bill on grounds of fairness, not fiscal accountability.

"There weren't any prophets," said Hoffman.

For their efforts to create the partnership and bail out the school system, The Sun's editorial page named Grasmick, Rawlings and former state school board President Walter Sondheim Jr. as Marylanders of the Year for 1997.

"City schools had hit rock bottom, both academically and financially," Grasmick said yesterday. "Almost eight years later, the schools have improved academically, but they're still in a financial mess."

Ehrlich said yesterday that the structure put in place in 1997 has failed.

"It's a system that has been dysfunctional when the city controlled it; it certainly has been dysfunctional under this so-called partnership," Ehrlich said. "Hopefully, at some point, a new model will emerge, and that model will work."

The legislation wrote into law a city-state partnership agreement reached in late 1996 to avoid trial in a lawsuit charging the state was failing to adequately finance city schools.

City officials did not want to cede their control of the school system but they desperately needed money. State officials, wary of handing millions to a failing system, demanded a role in running the schools.

Clinton R. Coleman, who was then Schmoke's press secretary, recalled that 1997 was a tough time for the city in Annapolis.

"It wasn't a friendly atmosphere toward the city with regard to increased funding for schools or just about anything else," he said.

Some city residents viewed the result - a "partnership" under which the existing school board would be replaced by one jointly named by the mayor and governor - as a humiliation.

But with a $254 million school aid package on the line, Schmoke felt he could not refuse. Grasmick recalled that at the ceremonial signing of the agreement, the mayor was near tears.

"He knew that he was giving up significant power in return for the extra money from the state," Grasmick said. "It was a painful thing for him to do, but he felt he had no choice."

According to the panel report, the legislation that implemented that agreement failed to adequately define the structure of the new system or to provide a sufficient transition period from a city agency to an independent school system.

"Under the partnership, the lines of authority became so blurred in practice that people felt there was nobody in charge," said panel member Sanford V. Teplitzky, an attorney and former Baltimore County school board member.

What filled the vacuum was a school system ruled by "fiefdoms," in which departments did not cooperate with each other and were accountable to no one in how they spent money, the panel said.

Mayor Martin O'Malley said school administrators rejected help from City Hall. "They thought to cooperate with the city was contrary to the spirit of the 1997 partnership," he said.

O'Malley contended that the law was flawed from the start because it removed accountability from elected officials and left the system in "political limbo."

"To disenfranchise the people of our city from control of their own school system was a mistake," he said.

Former Sen. Robert R. Neall, who in 1997 was a Republican member of Hoffman's committee, said he helped round up GOP votes for the bill that eventually passed. Last year, he was brought in by the city school board to help stop the system's fiscal hemorrhaging - a role he played until he was shouldered aside by O'Malley.

Neall said he still believes the legislation was fundamentally correct and achieved some positive results. He noted that in the years after its passage, city schools made significant improvements in academic achievement.

"This bill was 80 percent effective," he said.

Neall said mismanagement - not the legislation - caused the fiscal debacle.

"The law didn't make that happen. People made that happen," he said. "It wasn't the law's fault. It was the people's fault."

Sun staff writers Laura Loh, Mike Bowler and David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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