Big Check Given to Baltimore Mayor Proves Doubters Wrong

By John Wagner and Matthew Mosk
Thursday, May 11, 2006

There was a sense of vindication in the air yesterday as Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) celebrated the full repayment -- a few weeks early, no less -- of a $42 million loan that City Hall made to Baltimore's cash-starved schools two years ago.

O'Malley's last-minute offer in March 2004 averted a state bailout that had been put on the table by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), whose office the mayor was already eyeing at the time. The infusion of state funds would have been accompanied by the humiliation of greater state control of the city system.

Some critics, including Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D), who is running for governor as well, have used the episode to portray O'Malley and Ehrlich as engaging in a "king of the hill" contest over Baltimore schools.

Yesterday, as school officials handed O'Malley a ceremonial oversize check representing the final $8 million repayment, the mayor reminisced about those who questioned City Hall's capacity to get the schools' finances on track.

"In Annapolis, the rhetoric said it was unfixable, this is never going to happen," O'Malley said. "But we knew the answer was not for us to take less responsibility. It was to take more responsibility."

There were naysayers in 2004, including former state senator Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel), who had served as a financial adviser to the system. He predicted that the schools would enter a "financial death spiral" in the wake of the city's action.

Brian Morris , chairman of the Baltimore school board, said yesterday that the timely repayment of the loan should help "build public credibility" in a system that has suffered more than its share of setbacks in recent years and continues to do battle with the state.

In March, the state school board sought to seize control of 11 of Baltimore's lowest-performing schools. At O'Malley's urging, the Democrat-led legislature promptly blocked the move and then overrode Ehrlich's veto of the bill.

O'Malley said yesterday that the legislature's action was an endorsement of progress being made in Baltimore schools, which historically have had the lowest test scores in the state.

Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver said the loan repayment was "a victory for the city and the state" but said it was made possible by the sizable infusion of state dollars into the system in recent years.

'Prince of Darkness' Sought

The Maryland legislative committee investigating the administration's termination of dozens of longtime state workers plans to hear from key witnesses today, including Public Service Commission Chairman Kenneth D. Schisler .

Lawmakers had hoped the star witness of the day would be Joseph Steffen , the former Ehrlich political aide who called himself "the Prince of Darkness" and, according to testimony thus far, had compiled lists of people to fire.

After months of staying in touch with Steffen, and a series of interviews, the legislature's chief investigator, Ward Coe , now says he can't locate Steffen. Last week, Coe hired a process server to track Steffen down and serve him with a subpoena. But as of yesterday, he had not heard back.

Reelection Reassignment

There was another sign yesterday that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich is ramping up his campaign for reelection. The governor's front-line press aide, Shareese N. DeLeaver, will leave her job as deputy press secretary to take over media duties for the campaign full time.

DeLeaver handled press for Ehrlich's 2002 campaign but may be best known as the person who signed the memo to state officials banning them from talking to two Baltimore Sun journalists. DeLeaver announced her move in an e-mail to reporters yesterday that included a touch of her trademark biting humor.

"It has been a learning experience working with all of you and my pleasure working with 'most' of you," she wrote.

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