ANNAPOLIS – Acting with unusual speed, the Maryland General Assembly ignored Republican cries of short-sightedness and partisanship Friday and passed hastily drawn-up legislation that would delay the state’s takeover of 11 Baltimore City schools for one year.
The legislation, which was heavily amended to block the state school board from removing any public school from the control of the Baltimore City School Board between March 28, 2006 and May 30, 2007, is aimed at temporarily stalling state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick’s plan to turn 11 middle and high schools in the city over to private companies.
Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, D-Baltimore, acknowledged that the performance of some schools has been “abysmal,” but asked his colleagues to give city officials just a little more time before Grasmick’s plan is set into motion.
“I am not happy, the school system is not happy with the results of the schools on (Grasmick’s) list,” McFadden said. “All I can say to you is hard work is being done.”
Opponents in the Legislature, mostly Republicans, argued that the city school system has had almost 10 years of partnership with the state to turn most of the schools around, but has failed to capitalize on the state dollars flowing in.
“We back up the money truck to Baltimore City every year, filled with tax dollars from Harford County and Baltimore County,” said Senate minority whip Andrew P. Harris, R-Baltimore County. “There’s no light at the end of the tunnel for these schools.”
Democrats have branded the proposed takeover of the troubled city schools as a political move to embarrass Mayor Martin O’Malley as he embarks on his campaign to unseat Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich.
A spokeswoman for O’Malley, Raquel Guillory, said Friday evening that City Hall was “gratified” that the Assembly had rallied to block the takeover in a mere 48 hours. “To not recognize the progress that our children are making was underhanded,” she said.
The bill passed in time to be on Ehrlich’s desk by the Legislature’s self-imposed Friday night deadline, which gives them time to override a potential veto before the end of the session April 10.
While Ehrlich has not decided whether to veto the bill or sign it into law, spokesman Henry P. Fawell said the governor did not approve of the measure.
“He believes that (the bill) is very short-sighted and hollow,” Fawell said. “There is not one single provision in there to improve student performance.”
Republican lawmakers also took issue with the speed with which the legislation was amended and brought to the floor for a vote.
Indeed, the bill was conceived, drafted, rammed through committee and passed by both houses with extraordinary speed. Grasmick’s announcement of the planned takeover was made only on Tuesday. By Wednesday, Baltimore legislators were lobbying their colleagues for legislative help in blocking the move, and by late Thursday McFadden had the bill ready for action by both houses.
It was then rushed through the General Assembly Friday as efforts by Republicans to substantially alter or to slow the bills down by parliamentary maneuvers were brushed off by heavy Democratic majorities in both houses.
Sen. James Brochin, D-Baltimore County, said leaving the troubled schools in the hands of the city school system was “the definition of insanity,” before breaking from his party and joining Republicans in the chamber in voting against the bill. “It’s trying the same thing over and over again and expecting it to work,” Brochin said. “We need something new.”