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O'Malley Backs Off Plan To Oust Education Chief

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley asked legislative leaders yesterday to shelve a bill that would have effectively rescinded the new term of State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. He pledged instead to work with the long-serving educator on policy priorities that include signing bonuses to lure principals to troubled schools.

O'Malley (D), who has feuded openly with Grasmick, made the announcement at a news conference at which the two sat side by side and said they will also work to expand vocational course offerings and regularly survey teachers in an effort to improve the environment in classrooms.

As recently as last week, aides said O'Malley supported legislation that would have allowed his new appointees to the state school board to decide whether Grasmick would retain her job beyond this year. In December, Grasmick was awarded a four-year contract extension, at an annual salary of $195,000, by a board controlled by appointees of O'Malley's predecessor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R).

Lawmakers and advisers to O'Malley attributed the turn of events to a realization that the "Grasmick bill" could have dominated the legislative session and overshadowed or delayed efforts to advance education priorities.

"I think it would have been protracted and resolved in a courtroom eventually," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), who had been prepared to introduce the bill last night. "Sometimes you can win the battle and lose the war. Unfortunately, other educational initiatives would have gone to the back burner."

O'Malley, who has made little effort to conceal his distrust of Grasmick, told reporters that he has spoken frequently since becoming governor nearly 13 months ago about the need to build consensus and put aside divisions.

"In that spirit, Dr. Grasmick and I have had a real good talk and a direct talk about the need to come together and work to improve education for the future," O'Malley said.

"I'm delighted to be here today and talk about consensus also," Grasmick said during a four-minute news conference, which ended with the two shaking hands and leaving the room without taking questions.

O'Malley spokesman Rick Abbruzzese said the governor was confident that the legislation would have passed, a view echoed by Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel), who agreed to abide by O'Malley's wishes.

But some allies of the governor said they had expected a tough fight and feared a backlash from female lawmakers, who have been among Grasmick's staunchest supporters since she was appointed in 1991, when William Donald Schaefer (D) was governor.

Others close to O'Malley suggested that the move could allow Grasmick to leave later on her own terms without appearing to be forced out. Efforts by O'Malley and several go-betweens to persuade her to resign had proved unsuccessful.

"What hopefully the general public wants from us is to work through things and not be in constant confrontation," Busch said. "I think this is for the benefit of everyone."

Miller did not rule out introducing the bill at a later date if the "detente" between O'Malley and Grasmick does not last but said that was unlikely this session.

O'Malley's action was also cheered by Republican leaders, who suggested last week that Democrats would be abusing their power if the appointment process were changed.

"I think it's wise," said Senate Minority Leader David R. Brinkley (Frederick). "It's in the interests of our schoolchildren, and I applaud the governor for it."

The legislation would have pushed back the end of Grasmick's current term from June until December. By that time, O'Malley will have a majority of the appointees on the 12-member State Board of Education, whose members serve staggered terms. The board could have decided whether to dismiss Grasmick or give her another four-year term.

During his 2006 campaign for governor, O'Malley proposed paying signing bonuses of $200,000 -- among the largest of their kind -- to dozens of principals hired to lead Maryland's worst-performing schools. O'Malley also proposed a program, based on a North Carolina model, to regularly survey teachers to better understand their concerns and garner suggestions.

Neither initiative has advanced. Yesterday, O'Malley and Grasmick voiced support for the ideas, though they offered no timetables or specifics. They also said the state needs to expand vocational course offerings.

"We need to take that to the next level," O'Malley said.

Grasmick and the board have a large degree of autonomy in setting education policy. But her position is part of the governor's Cabinet, and O'Malley and Grasmick have said they rarely speak outside formal settings, the result of a rift that developed during O'Malley's tenure as mayor of Baltimore.

During his 2006 campaign, O'Malley accused Grasmick of "doing Ehrlich's bidding" by seeking to embarrass him over the performance of the Baltimore schools. The relationship between O'Malley and Grasmick reached a low point in March 2006, when state education officials moved to seize control of 11 struggling Baltimore schools.

Grasmick said the state had authority under the federal No Child Left Behind Act and strongly denied that politics played a role. The legislature passed a bill blocking Grasmick's action and then overrode Ehrlich's veto of the measure.

More recently, O'Malley has called Grasmick "the poster child" of No Child Left Behind and a pawn of the state Republican Party. Grasmick is a registered Democrat but was considered as a running mate by Ehrlich.

Few policy splits emerged publicly between Grasmick and O'Malley during his first year as governor. The most notable centered on alternative routes to graduation for students who fall short on high school exit exams.

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