State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has drawn the ire of several Democratic lawmakers, as well as some educators and parents, for her very visible role in supporting Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s slot-machine gambling plan as a means to fund public education.
In the corridors of the State House and in heated exchanges on school district e-mail lists, legislators and educators are questioning the appropriateness of Grasmick's actions. She testified last month at Maryland House and Senate committee hearings on the controversial proposal and appeared with Ehrlich (R) when he outlined a revised bill that would reduce state education profits from slots.
A version of Ehrlich's plan to legalize slot machines at four racetracks won approval in the state Senate on Saturday but faces strong opposition in the House.
At issue is Grasmick's willingness to use her position, which is filled by the State Board of Education, to dive into the policy debate and whether she should be supporting gambling to help fund education.
Private grumbling morphed into formal protest when three senators wrote this month to State Board of Education President Marilyn D. Maultsby that they were "shocked" by Grasmick's actions.
"Dr. Grasmick's appearance in support of the governor's plan places her smack in the middle of the controversy," Sens. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), Sharon M. Grosfeld (D-Montgomery) and Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) wrote in the March 6 letter. "We would hope such intervention in public policy debate -- beyond school policy -- by your employee is reviewed, and hopefully, corrected."
Maultsby said she plans to talk with the senators to further understand their concerns. However, she said Grasmick has not advocated specifically for Ehrlich's slots bill but rather for the overall need to fund public education. The current plan could mean as much as $700 million annually for the state's schools.
"We want to make sure that education is in line to be the recipient of the monies," Maultsby said, adding that the state board has not taken an official position on the bill. "I think she's taken an appropriate advocacy role there."
Still, even strong Grasmick supporters are puzzled. Sen. Roy P. Dyson (D-St. Mary's), a slots opponent, praised Grasmick's educational leadership, but said that "to give the appearance of championing gambling, that is not something you want your secretary of education to be doing."
Grasmick has served under Democratic governors for more than a decade. Last summer, Ehrlich pursued her as a possible running mate, but Grasmick declined, citing a desire to remain schools superintendent.
Her husband, Louis J. Grasmick, long a Democratic activist, contributed $4,000 to Ehrlich's campaign in September, according to campaign finance records. She gave a total of $750 to his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, in donations made in 1999 and 2001.
Grasmick said in an interview last week that she knew she might face criticism for appearing with Ehrlich on the slots proposal. She has also spoken out at hearings on his charter school legislation. But she said that her role is to "advocate for children of this state and for high quality education, and I don't worry about a personal risk."
At a Feb. 25 hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee, Grasmick said that the Board of Education was aware that she would be testifying. She was not there to endorse slots, she said, but "the concept that is embodied in this revenue bill . . . the 900,000 children who are in the public schools of Maryland."
She then reminded lawmakers about the work of the Thornton Commission, which concluded that increased funding in Maryland was needed to address educational inequities. In response to the commission's report, the General Assembly last year passed the Bridge to Excellence Act, a $1.3 billion funding package over four years beginning in 2004.
In an interview, Grasmick said of the slots plan, "I'm supporting a revenue source to implement recommendations that I feel are absolutely critical."
Ehrlich, too, has said that the passage of a slots bill is the key to seeing that the Thornton money comes to pass.
Grasmick does not work for Ehrlich. She reports to the State Board of Education, a nonpartisan, 12-member body appointed to four-year terms by the governor. Two board seats are up this year, and Ehrlich has already reappointed one member. In 1999, the state board extended Grasmick's appointment to 2004.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery) said he wonders why Grasmick has not thrown her weight behind other proposed methods to raise public education funds, such as closing corporate tax loopholes.
"We could sure use her for raising money for revenue for education, but why, out of all the revenue raisers, did she pick slots and none other?" he asked.
Laura Siegel, a Potomac parent of three, said she saw television news coverage of Grasmick standing with Ehrlich as the slots issue was being discussed, which she said surprised her.
Siegel said she wants to see Grasmick pushing for education funding, "But she doesn't need to ask specifically for slots. That's the impression I got when I saw her," Siegel said.
Grasmick said that slots have emerged as the most likely financial windfall and that she wanted to stake out a piece for education. "If there were a tax bill that would dedicate a significant portion to education, I would be there supporting it," she said.