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  Md. Lawmaker Making Waves for School Reform

By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 1999; Page B01

In January, Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore) issued a stern challenge to his colleagues in Prince George's County: Fix your schools, or I will do it for you.

The pointed threat has set off a flurry of activity among county lawmakers, school officials and other elected leaders, some thrilled that Rawlings jump-started a stalled reform process and others angered that one person felt he could wield such power.

Some Prince Georgians – including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. – suggest that Rawlings butt out of county business. What business, they say, has a Baltimore legislator got meddling in the internal affairs of a county more than 20 miles from his district?

But Rawlings, 61, just smiles and goes about his business, which is whatever he chooses to make it. He expresses pleasure at a new sense of urgency among the elected leaders of Prince George's.

"They're more engaged," Rawlings said during an interview this week. "Before, they weren't willing to do that. They sat back, and they believed the solution was, `Give me more money.' "

Then he added matter-of-factly, "I'm the one who's getting results."

Today, a panel appointed by the legislature to oversee reform of the Prince George's school system will deliver a report to Rawlings that indicates efforts have intensified since he berated school leaders for conducting "business as usual" – what he described as wasting taxpayer money while dragging their feet.

As the Maryland General Assembly considers whether to strip power from the county's elected school board, no single figure looms larger in Annapolis than Rawlings, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee. Like other committee chairs, Rawlings has broad powers to push through, or kill, bills.

"He has tremendous power," said Del. Rushern L. Baker III (D), who chairs the Prince George's House delegation and has sparred with Rawlings over funding for county schools.

Rawlings, a portly former math professor, is blunt-spoken and fancies himself a "teddy bear." Critics call the five-term delegate who grew up in Baltimore public housing a bully who abuses his authority. Rawlings is opinionated and riles many who cross his path, never forgetting a slight.

He angered Baltimoreans when he orchestrated state intervention into city schools in 1996. And he upset Prince George's school board members, and residents, by berating school officials in January, questioning their hiring tactics. Rawlings was livid at what he considered obstinacy on school officials' part and threatened to emasculate the elected board in favor of the appointed panel.

Prince George's school board member Kenneth E. Johnson (Mitchellville) said that Rawlings was seeking retribution because county lawmakers opposed a 1996 funding package that provided more than $200 million for Baltimore schools.

"It appears that Delegate Rawlings intends on making good on his promise to teach the Prince George's delegation and the citizens of Prince George's County a lesson for not supporting the Baltimore City 1996 settlement," Johnson wrote recently in a letter to House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany).

But others, even those who normally oppose Rawlings, disagree.

"I have fought Delegate Rawlings on the floor of the House when I don't agree with him," said Del. James W. Hubbard (D-Prince George's). "But I have to agree with his assessment."

Prince George's schools, with an operating budget of $845 million and 128,000 students, rank next-to-last in the state in student performance. A recent independent audit reported, among other things, that a bloated personnel system siphoned millions away from classrooms. And the oversight panel reported that school leaders were resistant to change.

That's why Baker proposed adding three appointed members to the board and giving the county executive authority to cut specific budget items. Since then, several other legislators have come up with variations on that plan, each of which will be debated Monday by the 21 members of the county House delegation.

Since 1994, Maryland has put 97 schools on a list of poorly performing schools eligible for state takeover, 83 in Baltimore and 12 in Prince George's. Rawlings dismisses frequent complaints from African Americans that the problems in the two predominantly black jurisdictions ought not be aired so publicly.

"This is part of our victimization as former slaves," he said. "It's a sense that you've got to keep these things secret and if you talk about it, it validates the white community's claim of our inferiority. To me that's bull. I don't believe our children are inferior. I believe our children can compete at the highest levels."

On education, Rawlings has plenty of clout in Annapolis. He serves on several national and regional education boards. In September, he was appointed to the board of directors of the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education.

"Pete Rawlings is in a class by himself," said Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. "This is a man who has no other agenda but the absolute movement of our children to standards of excellence. He will take every political risk to ensure that that happens."

Reforms in Baltimore are paying off, Grasmick said, with elementary test scores, the state's lowest by far, inching up for the first time last year. That pleases Rawlings.

"We have a responsibility to ask for money only when we need it," he said. "And when we get it from them, we must use it in a way that is both efficient and effective."

Staff writers Amy Argetsinger and David Nakamura contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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