Friday, Sept. 14, 2007

Taking the lead: Grasmick hanging in for now

With governor calling for her ouster, some wonder how much longer she will remain the state’s schools superintendent

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Susan Whitney-Wilkerson⁄The Gazette
Nancy S. Grasmick, speaking to The Gazette’s editorial board Wednesday, said a plan to take over failing schools in Baltimore was not politically motivated.
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Nancy S. Grasmick has navigated tricky political waters under governors from both parties since taking over as state schools superintendent in 1991.

Now, under Gov. Martin O’Malley, her fourth governor, Grasmick’s days could be numbered.

‘‘Trust does not exist between Dr. Grasmick and myself,” O’Malley (D) said on Baltimore’s WYPR-FM radio last week.

On Thursday, O’Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese reiterated O’Malley’s desire to replace Grasmick.

Her contract expires in June of next year,” Abbruzzese said. ‘‘The governor feels that the state Board of Education should begin looking for a qualified replacement, a qualified professional superintendent of public schools.”

Grasmick and O’Malley have long had a notoriously icy relationship, crystallized last year when the state Department of Education tried to take over 11 under-performing schools in Baltimore city, where O’Malley was mayor.

The attempt to replace administrators at four high schools and seven middle schools, which was blocked by the General Assembly, came just as O’Malley’s gubernatorial campaign against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) kicked into high gear.

Grasmick, in an interview with Gazette editors and reporters on Wednesday, said the takeover attempt was not politically motivated.

‘‘We did it every year since 2003,” said Grasmick, whose name was floated as a possible Ehrlich running mate. ‘‘But because it was a political year, it was printed in a political context. We do it every single year. We’re obligated to do it.”

Last year’s action was part of the intervention mandated for struggling schools by the federal No Child Left Behind law, said William Reinhard, an MSDE spokesman. Baltimore city was the only school system that had reached the point requiring state intervention, he said.

O’Malley also said last week that the governor should appoint the state schools superintendent and county executives should appoint superintendents for their county’s school system. The state superintendent under current rules must approve local superintendents.

The governor has already begun remaking the state school board, which has the power to oust the superintendent.

Former Montgomery county councilman and county school board member Blair G. Ewing was one of five members O’Malley appointed in March to the 12-member board that could oust Grasmick when her contract expires June 30.

Ewing said he is ‘‘agnostic” on whether the board or the governor should choose the superintendent, but said O’Malley ‘‘wants to have influence over the educational direction of the state more directly than under the present arrangement. He wants his accountability to be commensurate with his policy responsibility.”

Grasmick said she is satisfied with the status quo.

‘‘The structure in Maryland has been a very successful one,” she said. ‘‘It separates [the state Department of Education] from daily political influence.”

If O’Malley has his way, that could change, said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Dist. 22) of University Park.

‘‘Soon he’ll have enough appointees [that] if he thinks she should go and he can convince enough appointees that she should go, that could be a fait accompli as to determining what structure is in place,” Pinsky said.

Grasmick acknowledged that while she is hired by the state school board, O’Malley could determine her future.

‘‘If I make a decision that the governor doesn’t like, that’s the end for me ...,” she said. ‘‘I don’t want to compromise my integrity or beliefs, so I have to make a decision: Am I going to operate in my own self-interest or am I going to operate in the interest of students.”

Sen. Nancy J. King, a former Montgomery County school board member, said it is likely that Grasmick will retire at the end of her current contract.

If Grasmick wants to stay on, the decision should be up to the state board — not the governor, said King, (D-Dist. 39) of Montgomery Village.

‘‘I think it’s important that education be kept separate from the political process in Maryland,” she said.

Asked how much longer she would like to remain in her job, Grasmick said she did not know.

‘‘I’m in this position,” she said. ‘‘I’ve stayed in this position. I’ve been courted to be a lieutenant governor at least five or six times. I will never leave education. I am dedicated to the students and I’m not compromising them.”

Staff Writer Marcus Moore contributed to this report.