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Mayor’s Race: Who is in Charge of the City Schools?

John Lee

For nearly twenty years, Baltimore’s city schools have been run by a city-state partnership. But that arrangement has come under fire in the race for mayor. State Senator Catherine Pugh, running in the Democratic primary, has introduced legislation in the General Assembly that would strip the governor of his role in picking the city school board, making the mayor fully responsible for the management of the schools. 

The partnership dates back to 1997. At that time, by all accounts, the city schools were dysfunctional. Academics were a disaster. So were the finances. The city was facing two lawsuits and was out of compli-ance with state regulations. So city and state leaders struck a deal. The state would give the city schools $250 million over 10 years. In return, the city school board would be appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor.

Nancy Grasmick, who was the state Schools Superintendent at the time, helped to broker the deal.

She says she can remember Kurt Schmoke, who was mayor at the time, saying the arrangement gives up “a lot of power in the mayor’s officer,” but that it was “in the best interests of the students.”

Pugh says the city no longer receives additional money through the agreement and that the current setup allows the mayor and governor to pass the buck back and forth. “It sort of leaves us in limbo over who in fact is really in control,” she said.

But candidate Elizabeth Embry said mayors can step up and take charge of the schools even under the current set-up. They’ve just chosen not to.

“I think both the governors and the mayors since that time have been really hands off of our school system,” she said. “And I think that’s an abdication of responsibility and as mayor I would want to be held ac-countable for the performance of our schools.”

Embry said the state is not the obstacle to improving the city schools. It’s about management and accountability.

Councilman Carl Stokes, also in the race for mayor, was a member of that first school board chosen by the mayor and governor in 1997. When it comes to the city-state partnership, Stokes can take it or leave it because, he said, the mayor has the power now. Governors traditionally have deferred to the mayors’ school board choices. But Stokes said mayors have used the partnership to duck their responsibility to the city schools.

“I think they have been hiding behind it, rather than saying these are our children and I will take the lead on making this happen, and that hasn’t happened,” Stokes said.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake said they won’t respond to issues raised in the campaign because she is not running. He added that the mayor has not tried to end the partnership, pointing out her father, Del egate Pete Rawlings, was one of its architects.

Former school board member Kalman“Buzzy”Hettleman said the partnership should go. He said the city should have local control of the schools just like it does with the police department.

Hettleman says ditching the partnership is coming up now because after years of making advancements, there is a feeling the city schools are slipping.

“And I think there was a sense of upward movement and momentum. And recent events, unfortunately, have changed that picture,” Hettleman said.

A spokesman for Gov. Hogan says appointments to local school boards should happen at the local level. But he did not go so far as to say the Governor will back Senator Pugh’s legislation to end the partnership.

School boards members are chosen by a variety of methods in other Maryland jurisdictions. In some counties, nominating conventions forward their top choices to the governor, who makes the appointment. Other counties have elected or partially elected boards.

Among other mayoral candidates: Former Mayor Sheila Dixon said she supports the mayor taking back control of the board. Councilman Nick Mosby said he is not opposed to the idea but doubts it will happen since the state provides nearly two-thirds of the overall school funding.