ANNAPOLIS – Delegates supporting the proposed $254 million settlement to the Baltimore City schools responded Thursday to the rumblings of other counties’ officials, who asked what the bill does for their jurisdictions.
In the months following the announcement of the settlement, many throughout the state have expressed concern over why their schools were not given similar consideration.
At a joint hearing of the House Appropriations and Ways and Means committees, they asked lawmakers to give them a piece of the legislation — and by implication, the money — that implements the agreement.
“I think that the obligation is to recognize that Baltimore City is not the only place in this state with huge problems of that nature,” said Prince George’s County Executive Wayne Curry.
Baltimore schools negotiated the settlement after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state, saying the condition of the city’s schools is pathetic. But in order to receive the money, city school officials would lose much of the control they have over their district.
On Thursday, members of the two committees simply asked if Curry and those sharing his concern would, like Baltimore City school officials, hand over much of their authority to the state.
Several accepted those terms without argument.
Anne Arundel County Executive John Gary responded, “If you give me that kind of money, you can sit in my lap while I make the decision.”
“Give us the castor oil,” agreed Montgomery County Executive Douglas Duncan.
Curry did not comment, but later in the hearing, Appropriations Chair Howard P. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, asked two representatives from Prince George’s County schools if they would agree to the same restrictions as Baltimore City, including an invasive study of their management and elimination of an elected school board.
“If you want to play in the same field, you’ll play by the same rules,” Rawlings said.
Mark D. Woodard, speaking for Prince George’s County schools disagreed. “No sir — we are not asking or accepting or acknowledging that we need a new school board or superintendent,” he said. “We don’t believe such changes are warranted in our school system.”
Teachers’ union leaders, also expected to oppose the measure, joined the county executives in calling themselves supporters of an amended version of the bill.
“We support efforts to improve the management of Baltimore City’s public schools,” said Marcia Brown, representing the teachers’ union.
But Brown said the bill, while creating a partnership between city and state officials, forces teachers out of the decision-making process. “Instead of including us in the harmony, we believe house bill 312 has left us behind,” she said.
Major F. Riddick Jr., the governor’s chief of staff, said the conditional support of the unions and county officials came from a desire to help Baltimore’s children combined with a need to include their own concerns in the bill.
“They support [the bill] because they realize it’s a good bill that is good for the children,” Riddick said. “They also have their issues, which the Legislature will deliberate fairly.”
While some looked out for their own interests, most speakers focused on convincing delegates that the bill, even without amendments, is desperately needed by Baltimore’s schools.
Toward the end of the five-hour hearing, teacher Rebecca Joseph won the warmest response of the day from the joint committees.
Joseph discussed how difficult finding money for class supplies can be, saying most of her classes’ 1,000 books come from her own money or from grants she had fought for. She said it pained her to tell a student, excited about a book the class was reading, that there were not enough copies for him to take one home.
Although she is a card-carrying member of the teachers’ union, Joseph said she has no problem with teacher evaluations proposed in the bill and fought by the union. “Believe me when I tell you I’m not scared of merit evaluations,” she said. “I welcome them.”
With all the difficulties the city’s schools now face, Joseph acknowledged that she is fighting burnout. “Life isn’t easy, but these kids are worth it,” she said. “They’re worth everything we have to give them.” -30-