Category Archives: Education

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

By Barry Rascovar

April 3, 2017–When it comes to dealing with the Maryland General Assembly, Republican Gov. Larry Hogan could well be called “Mr. Irrelevant.”

He’s threatening to veto a batch of bills recently enacted by Democrats in the state legislature – yet he lacks the votes to support his negative actions.

It amounts to more venting of angry “sound and fury” by the highly partisan governor that gets him nowhere.

He still insists on playing “Mr. Nasty” when he goes on conservative talk shows or holds a staged media event, denouncing Democratic lawmakers and their proposals in harsh terms as though their proposals will bring down the wrath of a furious GOP deity on Maryland citizens.

He demands that Democrats abandon their ideological beliefs and join Hogan’s Heroes in marching lockstep behind his decidedly conservative agenda.

A Week of Vetoes

This State House drama is nearing a climax in what could be called “veto week.” Democrats rushed through a number of bills Hogan could well reject – but there’s still time in the General Assembly session for near-certain veto-override votes.

The biggest Hogan hissy fit is likely to surround the “Protect Our Schools Act of 2017,” a Democratic measure that more accurately could be called “Protect Our State from Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos.”

The Hogan-DeVos-Trump School Threat

MD Gov. Larry Hogan and U.S. Education Secretry Betsy DeVos meet with children at a Bethesda elementary school.

The bill stems from fear that Hogan wants to impose a Republican education agenda on local school systems – dozens of charter schools, lots and lots of vouchers for kids to opt out of public schools, more aid to religious schools, private companies running under-performing schools and a state takeover of the worst-performing schools.

Democratic legislators fear the new U.S. Department of Education secretary will move heaven and earth to eliminate public schools and replace them with charter, religious and privatized schools. That’s what DeVos – who married into the billionaire family that founded and runs Amway – has loudly advocated for years.

It’s pretty much what Trump trumpeted on the presidential campaign trail last year, too.

And it’s awfully close to what Hogan has been seeking as his way to “improve” education in Maryland.

He tried to get a bill passed this session creating a special board with the power to authorize charter schools at the drop of a hat and without local school board approval. Private schooling is Hogan’s panacea for improving education achievement.

Sounding the Alarm

No wonder Democrats in Annapolis are alarmed. They aren’t going to let Hogan undercut public education systems in Maryland’s 24 subdivisions, which is what privatization, charter schools and a wide-spread voucher system could do.

Hogan falsely claims the Democrats’ bill he plans to veto will cost Maryland $250 million in federal funds under an improvement plan the state must submit to Washington.

But he intentionally ignores the fact that the new Republican president has essentially gutted that required improvement plan put in place by the Obama administration.

What Hogan has pledged to veto is a defensive bill Democrats urgently want on the books to block the Hogan-DeVos-Trump triumvirate from directly imposing their will on failing schools or creating – without local approval – charter schools and vast voucher systems.

The Baltimore Sun’s editorial page rightly pointed out that the legislature is stepping too forcefully into education matters better left to the state education board. The state board has complained, too, about legislative overreach.

Yet given the fact that the Republican governor is slowly converting that board into a conservative panel that could well embrace the Hogan-DeVos-Trump education agenda, the restrictions spelled out in the Democrats’ bill are quite understandable.

Reelection Takes Priority

None of this needed to happen.

Had Hogan opted to make love not war with Democratic legislators, Maryland could be making greater headway on classroom achievement – including agreements on permitting more charter schools in the state.

But Larry Hogan is first and foremost a political survivalist who appears most interested in his reelection, not in finding compromises on sensible bills that improve life in Maryland.

The result is a preventive measure drafted by alarmed and worried Democrats that almost certainly will go on the books. Hogan could have avoided this confrontation, but unlike General Electric, progress is not his most important product – politics is.

He’ll continue to denounce and demonize Democrats alleging that Maryland will lose federal school funds. He’ll continue to ream out Democrats for “outrageous and irresponsible” actions that he asserts are blocking his education reforms.

It’s all designed to construct a reelection campaign story in which the poor, underappreciated underdog governor, a man trying to do the right thing, finds himself once again under attack from mean, corrupt, unethical Democrats in Annapolis.

Meanwhile, the exceedingly difficult task of finding ways to improve learning in Maryland’s public schools gets shuttled to the sidelines. Politics, not policy, must come first. ###

Response from Franchot’s Top Aide

Jan. 10, 2017–Len Foxwell, a longtime confidante and aide to Comptroller Peter Franchot responded to the column, “Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues” (see next item below) with the following lengthy defense of his boss. It’s three times longer than the column Foxwell finds objectionable, so be prepared.

Also note:  Maryland’s Jan. 25 “begathon” can be viewed live on the Board of Public Works page of the maryland.gov website. Watch the long hours of 24 school superintendents trooping before the board trying to justify more money for school construction — and then judge for yourself the value of this exercise.

Meanwhile, here is Foxwell’s missive:

January 9, 2017

Dear Mr. Rascovar:

Good afternoon, and Happy New Year.  Here’s to good health and both personal and professional fulfillment in the year ahead.

Having read your most recent contribution to MarylandReporter.com – a politically-lubricated jeremiad against the Maryland Public School Construction Program’s longstanding appeals process – I feel obliged to respectfully rebut several of your more misleading and uninformed points.

My first is in response to your characterization of the process itself – “a demeaning ‘begathon’ that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise and reward their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.”  From this passage, your readers might assume that you have diligently attended previous school construction appeals hearings in recent years, and that you are personally familiar with the tone and tenor of the proceedings.

That would be incorrect.  I have had the good fortune of attending every Public School Construction Program appeals hearing since Comptroller Franchot took office in 2007.  To date, I haven’t actually seen you at any of them.  I find it highly improbable that you have followed this annual event – which customarily lasts several hours – on the Board of Public Works’ streaming video feed.  Therefore, I have to question your authority to editorialize on the performance of the Board members at this annual event.

The Board of Public Works provides the public with both a video archive and written transcripts of past meetings.  I would respectfully encourage you to go back, catch up on what you’ve missed over the past decade or so, and offer your readers with specific instances in which Board members gratuitously “humiliated” participants in the meeting or otherwise demonstrated inappropriate conduct.

In stark contrast to what you have described in your column, I think you’ll find that the Board of Public Works is, for the most part, quite laudatory of the efforts of Maryland’s local school systems to carry out their shared mission effectively in this age of limited financial resources.  As for Comptroller Franchot, you will find that he reserves particularly high praise for those school systems that have performed well on their annual public school maintenance surveys, as conducted by the Interagency Committee for Public School Construction.

This is a longstanding priority of his, one that dates back to the early days of our previous governor’s administration, because schools that are maintained properly tend to have a longer life span, which leads to cost savings for Maryland taxpayers.  Even more important, we believe, is the fact that – all things being roughly equal – students who have the opportunity to learn in safe, comfortable and attractive schools tend to outperform those who don’t.

The Board members have also utilized this open and transparent public forum to encourage local school systems to consider alternative construction practices and other strategies – such as the use of geothermal energy whenever possible – to achieve cost savings and better learning outcomes.  All of these would seem to be valuable points of discussion for those who share an interest in the fiscal well-being of our state and our ability to prepare students for success in a complex global economy.  Yet, inexplicably, none of these points found their way into your analysis, which leads me to speculate — with apologies in advance for being impolite —  that you simply have no idea what you are talking about.

In fairness to you, these meetings have had their moments of honest disagreement between Board members and local school systems.  Last year, for instance, the Board members sought to hold the Howard County Public School System accountable for its management of, and response to, the presence of unacceptable levels of mold in several of its schools, which had led to several reported cases of illness and hospitalization.

Similarly, there was considerable discussion about the decision of the Carroll County Public School System to close multiple schools within the county due to insufficient enrollment, despite Governor Hogan’s willingness to invest $4 million to forestall that effort.  Given the number of Maryland students, teachers and families whose lives were affected by these two issues alone, I think we would all be interested in knowing whether you regarded those public discussions as (to borrow your own terms) “distasteful” and “unbecoming.”

You correctly note that Comptroller Franchot has “conducted a consistent crusade to force [Baltimore County] to install portable, temporary air conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.” However, you incorrectly suggest that his effort is rooted in a desire to discredit the incumbent Baltimore County Executive and thwart whatever political ambitions he may harbor.

It is worth noting that Comptroller Franchot’s engagement in this subject dates back to June 16, 2011, when he wrote letters to then-Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and Baltimore City Schools CEO Andres A. Alonso.  Noting that the conditions within many of their school facilities can “pose an obvious health and safety risk to all concerned,” he asked “how…children can focus and learn – much less perform to the best of their abilities on final exams and standardized tests – in such an environment.”

He went on to write that “it is equally hard to see how teachers and staff members can feel like their hard work and sacrifice are truly valued when they are forced to work in such unpleasant workplace conditions,” and noted that these conditions “erode the quality of the learning experience” and “sends a disturbing message of indifference to those who have dedicated their lives to serving our children.”

Bear in mind that in June of 2011, Mr. Kamenetz had been in office for approximately six months, and was still several years away from being mentioned, within Maryland political circles, as a probable candidate for statewide office.  To that same point, the letters in question were authored more than three years prior to Governor Hogan’s successful gubernatorial campaign.

Therefore, the notion that the Comptroller’s commitment to safer classrooms for the children of Baltimore City and Baltimore County is inspired by a nebulous political rivalry with Mr. Kamenetz, or an equally nebulous political alliance with Governor Hogan, is beyond asinine.  Your insistence on force-feeding this discredited narrative erodes whatever credibility you have accumulated over the course of your career and – at a time when our political system is in such desperate need of sunlight – serves as a reminder of why public confidence in the media is trending in the wrong direction.

It is my belief that Comptroller Franchot’s perspective on the air conditioning issue has been well-documented.  For the sake of brevity, I won’t unpack his entire argument in response to yours.  Suffice to say that, in the year 2017, every child, teacher and public school employee is entitled to air conditioned classrooms in the warmer months – when it’s not uncommon for building temperatures escalate into the triple digits – just as they are entitled to heated classrooms on frigid days.

Despite the fact that hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars have been invested in the Baltimore City and Baltimore County school systems for building improvements since Comptroller Franchot took office, more than 50,000 school children in these two jurisdictions – most of whom hail from low and moderate-income communities – are unable to learn in the same conditions that are taken for granted elsewhere.  They are, however, expected to demonstrate the same academic progress and perform comparably on standardized tests as their peers.

The Maryland NAACP regards this as a “neglected civil right;” Comptroller Franchot views it as a fundamental matter of social and economic justice, and Governor Hogan has lent his support, and that of his Administration, to a grassroots coalition of families who demand equity for vulnerable children and teachers who otherwise would have no voice.

I suspect there is space for honest disagreement – however irrational – over the need for immediate relief for these children.  However, I would respectfully suggest that it is the height of disrespectful arrogance to blithely dismiss, as “plants,” those who have attended past Board of Public Works meetings to make their voices heard.

These are working parents who took unpaid time off from work to stand with their children as they described conditions in a classroom without air conditioning or even functioning windows.  They are members of our civic and faith community – such as the Rev. Dr. Alvin Hathaway of the Union Baptist Church in Baltimore – who refuse to stand by as certain children are held accountable for all of the obligations of enrollment in a Maryland public school without a fundamental right that is available to their peers.

All of them took advantage of the unique opportunity afforded by the Board of Public Works to express their points of view in an open, transparent forum, and many of them did so after feeling as if nobody else was bothering to listen to them.  None of them did so with professional benefits in mind, or to curry favor with members of the Annapolis political establishment.  Rather than trivialize their service, I would humbly suggest that you regard them as an aspirational model.

As a point of reference, I have attached copies of the 2011 correspondence that I referenced earlier in this letter.  I thank you in advance for considering the points articulated in this letter, and wish you, once again, a happy new year.

Sincerely,
Len N. Foxwell Chief of Staff Comptroller of Maryland

Maryland’s Demeaning ‘Begathon’ Continues

By Barry Rascovar

Jan. 9, 2017— Here we go again. In a few weeks, school superintendents will trek, en masse, to the second floor of the Maryland State House to grovel before the Board of Public Works for additional school construction funds.

It is a demeaning “begathon” that long ago outlived its usefulness and turned into a political circus allowing the governor and comptroller to praise, and reward, their friends in the counties and humiliate their enemies.

This time, the target for Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. and Comptroller Peter Franchot is Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz – a man who has signaled a desire to run for statewide office next year.

Anything Hogan and Franchot can do to undercut Kamenetz’ credibility helps their reelection chances.

That explains the consistent animosity by this tag-team tandem toward Kamenetz’ requests.

Comptroller’s Crusade

Franchot has conducted a consistent crusade to force the county to install portable, temporary air-conditioners in all schools lacking central cooling units.

Former Baltimore County executives bear the brunt of the blame for leaving too many school kids in overheated classrooms during the early fall and early summer.

Kamenetz, on the other hand, has been making up for lost time with a $1.3 billion program to get students into air-conditioned schools. But his expensive plan is phased in due to fiscal constraints.

Maryland's Demeaning 'Begathon' Continues

School Construction in Montgomery County

Franchot has persisted in pummeling Baltimore County’s leader for not following his insistence that Kamenetz buy window A/C units.

Each has a point: Kids should not swelter on extremely hot days, yet it makes little sense to spend millions for a short-term fix when a long-term fix is in the works.

The ideal solution is for the state to forward-fund the money Baltimore County needs to finish the job ASAP through a combination of costly upgrades and replacement buildings.

Embarrass Kamenetz

However, neither Franchot nor Hogan has lifted a finger to support the county’s efforts. They could have designated a pot of school construction money for jurisdictions needing window-unit air-conditioners. Instead, they remained silent.

Their goal is to publicly embarrass Kamenetz. Thus, the dynamic duo voted last May to punish Baltimore County (and its school kids) by withholding $10 million in state funds for county school construction – thus delaying portions of the work on air-conditioning classrooms.

The two also withheld $5 million in badly needed construction dollars from Baltimore City, which also is in the process of getting all schools air-conditioned.

They demanded that the two jurisdictions air-condition all classrooms in a matter of months – an impossibility for any number of legal and practical reasons.

The two Annapolis politicos apparently think the city and county can simply wave a wand and, voila! they’ll reverse a situation that’s been festering for two decades.

The reality is that it will take a number of years – and billions – to correct this situation.

Political Favoritism

When the “begathon” parade shamelessly takes place on Jan. 25, it is likely Hogan in particular will look kindly upon Baltimore City’s requests, including the withheld $5 million, as a goodwill gesture toward the city’s new mayor, Catherine Pugh.

He and Franchot will save their contempt for Baltimore County School Superintendent Dallas Dance and, indirectly, Kamenetz. There could well be “plants” in the room to demonstrate Hogan and Franchot are supported by county residents in their harsh criticisms.

It’s all part of the set-piece melodrama the “begathon” has become.

In most cases, conservative, Republican-leaning counties will be treated with kid-gloves by the Republican governor while Democratic strongholds get a cold reception.

It’s quite a distasteful scene, one that is as unbecoming for the governor and comptroller as it is for the school chiefs forced to grovel before them.

Business Comes First, Education Second

By Barry Rascovar

Oct. 17, 2016 – He’s at it again! Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. issued another executive order that makes it even clearer he intends to usurp the powers of the Maryland State Board of Education and every local school system in the state.

So far, no one is challenging Hogan’s decree setting the start of the school year statewide after Labor Day and the last school day no later than June 15.  Nor is any school system threatening to defy his order, which screams “overreach.”

There is no valid education reason for Hogan’s action.

Business Comes First, Education Second

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr.

The two orders are designed to bring cheers from Ocean City businesses and parents happy to take their kids to the beach in late August instead of getting them ready for an early return to classes.

Yet even Hogan’s own appointees to the state board are complaining the governor wants to neuter the board and that his order is not grounded in any education rationale.

Larry Hogan is, indeed, the “Maryland is Open for Business” governor. Perhaps his next slogan will be: “In Maryland, Business Comes First, Education Second.”

Perplexed School Leaders

Local school boards are in a quandary. Following Hogan’s directive means a loss of control over the school year. It could be just the first step in more gubernatorial dictates on which holidays to honor, what to teach in classes and what to forbid in local schools.

For instance, Hogan has repeatedly lashed out at teacher unions and accused them of calling the shots on education policy. Will he use future executive orders to crack down on them and strip from the school calendar the “professional training days” now built into the school schedule as days off for kids?

Will he dictate what he will allow the supposedly independent state school board to do on its own and what he intends to unilaterally mandate from his second-floor state House office?

Hogan has never been regarded as an education expert. His pronouncements on the subject have been few and far beyond –usually encapsulated in a brief one- or two-sentence quip.

He hasn’t even claimed his school-year decree is designed to improve the learning environment. For him, the executive order is all about boosting summer business sales and winning popularity for extending the summer season. Those are his priorities.

Hogan’s Power

The problem for local school systems is that Hogan can be vindictive if challenged. He might withhold millions in school construction funds for petty reasons. After all, he’s already done it to Baltimore County and Baltimore City.

He could hold back other education dollars from systems that refuse to knuckle under and instead honor their commitment to crafting a school calendar that furthers students’ ability to learn.

There are other flaws in the decrees. What if there’s a harsh winter that forces many more lost school days than anticipated? Or other emergency closures? Even stripping spring break to the bone might not be enough to avoid post-June 15 schooling. What happens then?

Hogan hasn’t said and he’s taken the power away from the state school board.

If a school system ignores Hogan because it feels the executive orders are unlawful intrusions on local education autonomy, what happens?

Does Hogan direct more executive orders at the wayward school system? Does he call out the National Guard to enforce his orders? Does he pull a Trump-like tantrum and say to the local school board members he appoints, “You’re fired”?

Education Losses

Meanwhile, the governor’s school-calendar mandate will hurt students’ ability to prepare for standardized tests whose dates cannot be changed. Kids lose ground in their learning when the long summer break is extended. Poor kids lose out on decent meals they don’t get at home. Research has clearly established those facts. But Hogan doesn’t seem to care.

It is unfortunate Attorney General Brian Frosh took a dive when asked to examine the legality of Hogan’s attempt to extend his power. Frosh’s agency issued an opinion that failed to give clear guidance, even though it concluded:  “. . . it is likely that a reviewing court, if presented with the issue, would conclude” Hogan exceeded his authority.

What Hogan has done is unprecedented. It could set a dangerous precedent.

Even if the orders are not challenged in court, there’s a strong chance the General Assembly will pass legislation sharply restricting and defining the limits of the governor’s power to issue executive orders, especially on matters pertaining to education. Lawmakers also are likely to pass such a law early in next year’s session so they can override an almost certain Hogan veto before adjournment.

Hogan’s handlers relish the chance to blame Democratic legislators for denying families a longer August vacation with their kids.

But it won’t be lawmakers reestablishing a longer school year that starts prior to Labor Day. Instead, they will simply return decision-making power to local school boards and the state education board – where it belongs.

Hogan may be looking for a way to win political points in this ludicrous dispute, but in the end all he’s doing is hurting Maryland school children’s ability to learn.

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Let Courts Decide Who Sets MD School Calendar

By Barry Rascovar

Sept. 26, 2016 – Does Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. have the power to issue an executive order mandating when the school year begins and ends? It’s not the most pressing question facing Maryland – but the answer could have a dramatic impact on the state’s future governance.

Indeed, there’s an urgent need for someone on either side of this issue to take the matter to court. A constitutional question of enormous consequence is at stake.

Hogan’s claim to executive powers over local school systems appears shaky. They are not part of the executive branch.Similarly, the State Board of Education isn’t beholden to Hogan’s mandates. By law, the governor names board members but it then is up to this independent panel to pick a superintendent and enact statewide school policies without interference.

So how can Hogan claim authority to lay out parameters for the annual school calendar?

Setting a Precedent?

In a state where there’s a yawning gap between the Republican governor and Democratic legislature, Hogan’s action could set a dangerous precedent. In the future, Hogan might decide to rule by executive fiat rather than tangle with a legislature determined to block his moves.

Repeatedly, Hogan has expressed disdain for the legislature and frustration with lawmakers’ refusal to give him 100 percent of what he wants. He has mocked and derided Democratic legislators. In the dispute over when to begin the school year he accused Democrats of being in the pocket of the state teachers union.

In the past, lawmakers have defeated attempts to accommodate Ocean City businesses by commencing school after Labor Day. Opposition has come not just from the teachers union but from statewide groups representing local education boards, PTAs and local school superintendents.

Their argument is based on doing what is best from an education standpoint.

Hogan’s argument is based on doing what is in the best interests of Ocean City and Deep Creek Lake businesses that see a decline in revenue when families can’t extend their vacations through the Labor Day weekend because of early school openings.

Practical Considerations

Hogan is being a practical, tactical politician seeking to win cheers from parents and his political base. Returning Maryland to an earlier time when all school systems waited till after Labor Day to begin classes is in line with Republican ideology that insists we can, indeed, roll back the clock.

Educators want to be practical, too, but not in a political sense. If you want to keep the current time off for holidays, religious observances and professional training days, then the school year must start before Labor Day or extend nearly till July.

The other concern is that a later school-year start compresses the time students have to prepare for nationwide testing. Educators worry about lower test scores and harming students’ ability to qualify for gifted and talented courses or getting into colleges.

But there’s a much bigger issue at stake.

Can the governor promulgate additional executive orders telling local schools and the state education panel what to do or what they are forbidden from doing?

Can he, for example, prevent a local school system from closing for Muslim holidays? If local school boards truncate spring break to comply with his order, can Hogan then tell them not to eliminate Good Friday and Easter Monday as holidays?

Could he or a future conservative governor require the end to sex education in local schools? Could he overrule school board decisions on the treatment of transgender children?

Could he issue an executive order allowing students to attend local schools without having been vaccinated? Could he decree that the conservative constitutional doctrine of “original intent” be taught in all high school civics classes?

Dividing Line of Power

At the same time, Hogan might decide to issue an executive order requiring Baltimore City and Baltimore County to air-condition all of its schools immediately, regardless of the cost to local governments. He might also use executive orders to fire local superintendents or board members who don’t follow his commands.

What happens if a local school board defies Hogan this time and sets its 2017 calendar with a pre-Labor Day opening? How does Hogan make that board comply? Does he deny the jurisdiction state funds? Does he sue the board?

And where does Maryland’s law-making body come into play? Isn’t that the group given the constitutional power to enact statutes governing local education?

Where, precisely, is the dividing line between executive authority and legislative authority?

Definitive answers are sorely needed. Not off-the-cuff “I’m right” comments from the governor or “we feel strongly both ways” conclusions from the attorney general’s office. Only the Maryland Court of Appeals is in position to deliver a clarifying ruling.

It doesn’t help matters for the General Assembly to reverse Hogan’s school-schedule mandate in January and then pass a law setting out new ground rules for executive orders. This would only produce more bad blood and finger-pointing for political gain.

A court determination, on the other hand, would settle this dispute and resolve a murky area of constitutional law.

All it takes is someone to pursue legal action. So far, no one has had the courage to do so.

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Grading Larry Hogan

By Barry Rascovar

Five vetoes and two major appointments in the past week tell us a great deal about Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. – some good, some not so good.

He’s proving to be a more conservative governor than voters probably imagined when they voted him into office. He’s also proving surprisingly doctrinaire in the extreme language in his statements and messages.

Let’s look at Hogan’s recent decisions and grade him the way his college professors might have:

Transit oversight board  

Hogan’s veto language is hysterical in discussing the Maryland Transit Administration Oversight and Planning Board, HB1010. His veto message is a blatant political document meant to rally the faithful. Hogan said  the bill’s provisions “represent a sophomoric attack on sound transportation policy by creating an unprecedented imposition of a politically-driven board to second-guess the authority of an executive branch agency.”

That’s pure hogwash.

This bill merely sets up a transportation advisory panel, another toothless tiger, like the earlier transportation scoring system he vetoed but the legislature overrode. But at least citizens who ride public transit would have a voice to express their concerns via this advisory group.

Transparency and public input are at the heart of this bill, two elements any sane politician ought to applaud. But by vetoing the bill, Hogan comes down emphatically on the side of secrecy and imperial-style decision-making.

In his message, Hogan made the ridiculous claim that the bill degrades Maryland’s quality of life and harms the state’s competitiveness – total buncombe.

He gets an emphatic F.

Morgan State University housing

This bill bars redevelopment of the Northwood Shopping Center in Baltimore, where student housing is planned for nearby Morgan State University – unless a local community group approves.

This is a local spat that never should have been taken on by the General Assembly. It is dangerous overreach.

Besides, the conflict between town and gown largely has been settled. There’s no need for such a disruptive and intrusive piece of legislation.

Hogan chose the correct path.

He gets an A.

Bridge over the Potomac

The governor had nasty words for this bill, which forces the state to set aside $75 million over the next 10 years to start paying for a replacement for the scary-as-hell 76-year-old Harry W. Nice Bridge that connects the northern neck of Virginia with Southern Maryland.

Grading Larry Hogan

Gov. Harry W. Nice Bridge crossing of the Potomac River in Southern Maryland

Hogan accused the legislature of superseding the “professional judgment” of his transportation staff. Au contraire, governor.

This bill restores the priority status given to replacing the Nice Bridge by the O’Malley administration. Instead of building a modern $1 billion bridge, Hogan’s folks want a far cheaper expansion of the existing, dangerous crossing over the Potomac River.

That’s not good enough. Until Hogan cut tolls on Maryland roads and bridges, the state had designated a replacement for the Nice Bridge as one of its top objectives. Now there’s not enough money to do the job.

There’s nothing wrong in the legislature expressing its will on major transportation projects. The long debate over the original Bay Bridge took place in the General Assembly. Governance in Annapolis is a shared responsibility – something Hogan wants to change.

Give him an F.

Supporting renewable energy

This bill forces utilities to turn more rapidly to renewable energy for electricity. It’s a boon for advocates of solar and wind power.

The current goal is 20 percent renewables by 2022. This bill forces utilities to reach 25% and to do so two years sooner.

That’s a steep challenge, even with subsidies from ratepayers that could cost close to $200 million by 2020. It may be asking for the impossible.

Maryland has made good progress on the road to renewable energy. But there’s a limit to how far this state, given its latitude and harsh winters, can march in that direction. We’re not part of the Sunbelt and state officials have walled off vast stretches of Western Maryland for renewable wind farms.

Besides, utility rates have been rising for Marylanders, many of whom struggle to make ends meet. Hogan is not about to permit what he sees as a backdoor tax increase.

He merits an A for this veto.

Education collaborative

This bill, SB910, runs into all sorts of constitutional conflicts. The goal is noble – a panel tasked with devising ways to help poor students do better in school. But two members of the General Assembly would hold seats on this board, which would hire a director and staff and set far-reaching education policy.

That’s the job of the executive, not the legislative branch, as any student of high school civics knows.

Hogan is right to teach the bill’s supporters a lesson in constitutional government.

His veto gets a grade of A.

New Public Service Commissioner

Del. Tony O’Donnell of Calvert County is the governor’s latest Public Service Commission nominee. In some ways, it’s a curious choice. O’Donnell, a former House minority leader, is a sharp, talkative conservative Republican who seems to have worn out his welcome even in Republican circles in the House of Delegates.

He knows a lot about the inner workings of electric utilities and the science of nuclear energy, having worked as a supervisor for BGE at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear plant.

Yet he’s a pro-business Republican who isn’t likely to give much weight to environmental pleas for “green” power. He’s also not a lawyer and hasn’t steeped himself in the arcane statutory meanderings of utility regulatory law.

O’Donnell will bring an interesting outlook to PSC deliberations. But he’s liable to find those endless hearings dull, long-winded and extraordinarily dense.

Hogan could have done better. He gets a B-minus for this appointment.

New Court of Appeals judge

The governor played political favoritism here, nominating his chief lobbyist, Joe Getty, to the state’s highest court.

Yes, Gov. Marvin Mandel did the same thing with Judge John C. Eldridge. But Eldridge brought to the bench considerable experience with a high-powered law firm. He was widely respected as a legal scholar.

Getty, in contrast, is a former legislator and solo practitioner from Carroll County. He could be overwhelmed by the immensity of confronting 200 highly complex legal appeals each year.

Getty, a staunch but sensible conservative, replaces one of the most liberal judges on the appeals court, Lynne Battaglia. He brings a different perspective to deliberations.

But he also could find himself over his head, having never served as a jurist or been under the gun to write dozens of obtuse appellate decisions on technical legal disputes.

Hogan should have named Getty to a lower court so he could gain much-needed experience before throwing him into the judicial lion’s den.

The governor’s grade: C-minus.

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Memorial Day Musings

By Barry Rascovar

May 30, 2016—A number of thoughts while celebrating the contributions of the men and women who served or serve in our nation’s military:

Baltimore City’s elections on May 27 offered two striking lessons for politicians and state election officials.

Provisional Mistakes

Yes, there was a terrible screw-up: Over 1,100 provisional ballots were mistakenly counted before the legitimacy of voters casting the ballots could be checked.

Memorial Day Musings

City election board officials have been pilloried for this mess. Fair enough, since it is clear there had not been nearly enough education or training of election judges.

But the state election board is culpable as well.

Converting from an electronic, computer touch-screen system – where voting errors are few – to an old-fashioned paper-ballot system that is known to be error-prone – was ripe for confusion and mistakes.

Not one city election-day judge had ever worked with the state’s new paper-ballot/automated counter system before. Baltimore City had used the old lever mechanical voting machines before jumping directly to the computer touch-screens. The city never held a paper-ballot election in anyone’s lifetime.

State election officials knew this. They also knew the city historically has voting snafus.

Yet state officials failed to take extra steps to help the city election board adapt to a brand-new voting system. Nor did they dispatch personnel to assist with training or offer more supervisory help on Election Day.

Instead, the state board and its staff sat back and watched the easily-predicted train wreck occur.

The main problem – confusion over how to handle those casting provisional ballots – could have been avoided if the state board had used treated paper for provisional ballots that the counting machines automatically rejected.

This and other ideas were scotched by the state board in Annapolis.

City election officials say they have learned the hard way and will make sure this doesn’t happen again in November. Perhaps the state election board will do more, too, and start acting like a cooperative partner instead of a stern superior.

New-Age Electioneering?

The May 27 city election held a lesson for young politicians as well. Some of them counted heavily on social media connections to springboard them to victory.

DeRay Mckesson was the most prominent social media star convinced that his heavy Facebook and Twitter presence was all it took to win at the ballot box. Local media made a big deal of his entry into the mayor’s race.

He and others forgot that while millennials might run their lives with a constant eye tuned to social media, the vast majority of voters aren’t plugged in. Indeed, Mckesson’s campaign turned into an embarrassment.

Despite his national Facebook renown, Mckesson received just 3,445 votes – a mere 2.6 percent of the votes cast.

The message is clear: You have to earn voters’ support the old-fashioned way, at least for the next decade or two.

Eye of the Storm

Lucky Elijah Cummings. He gets a starring role at the Democratic National Convention.

Now the bad news: He’s chairing the convention’s Platform Committee, where the hell-hath-no-fury-like-Bernie-Sanders-scorned protests will be heard.

It could get messy, angry and even violent.

Here’s one example. Two Sanders delegates on the committee are determined to have Democrats on record as condemning Israeli violence toward the Palestinian cause. That could set off a cataclysmic response from Jewish delegates and Clinton supporters.

So congratulations to the Baltimore area’s long-serving congressman. But he’d better bring a thick skin and a heavy gavel with him to Philadelphia in July.

Edwards Still in Denial

Defeated Congresswoman Donna Edwards, who lost badly to Congressman Chris Van Hollen in the Democratic primary for United States Senate, remains bitter and angry. She’s gone public now with her sour grapes and excuses as to why she failed to advance her career.

Edwards thinks there’s a “glass ceiling” for black women like herself. That’s why Van Hollen won.

Donna Edwards

Rep. Donna Edwards

Maybe it had something to do with the lousy constituent service Edwards provided for her Washington-area constituents, her grating personality that alienated House colleagues and her failure to sell herself to voters in the Greater Baltimore region.

Maybe her loss had something to do with her meager record in Congress versus Van Hollen’s all-star record.

Elections are won on the basis of merit and executing a solid campaign plan, not proportional representation based on race and gender.

Edwards needs to stop blaming others for her deficiencies. She lost because her campaign focused almost exclusively on race and gender rather than persuading Maryland Democratic she was the best candidate.

School Board Secrecy

Baltimore City’s school board decided to hide its business from the public. So it intentionally circumvented its own rules and picked a new school superintendent in total secrecy. The board didn’t even feel it necessary to tell the public it had fired the incumbent school chief months earlier.

It was a process more suited to the old Soviet Union than the U.S. of A.

What will the board do next behind closed doors?

All sorts of public officials are wringing their hands and criticizing the school board while proclaiming nothing can be done about this outrageous display of heavy-handed secrecy.

That’s not true. There’s plenty both the governor and mayor could have done.

Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr., who appoints half the board members, could have picked up his telephone and read the riot act to school board members for acting in such a cavalier and undemocratic manner. He could have hinted that any shadowy repetition would have consequences when it comes to state funds for city schools.

Meanwhile, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake could have picked up her telephone and shouted at school board officials, too. Then she could have demanded an end to secrecy. She could have gotten the near-certain next mayor, Sen. Cathy Pugh, to echo those sentiments and make clear more secret actions would jeopardize budget support from City Hall.

Both Hogan and Rawlings-Blake dropped the ball.

Hogan doesn’t spend time worrying about what happens in Baltimore City anyway; Rawlings-Blake has been missing in action since announcing her plans to retire.

Transparency and openness in government be damned.

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Tag-Team Villains

By Barry Rascovar

May 16, 2016 – Watching elected officials punish school children for alleged sins of other public officials is painful and embarrassing.

Gov. Larry Hogan and Comptroller Peter Franchot should be ashamed.

They aren’t, of course.

Each is on an ego trip, enjoying the power they can wield in a vanity-filled attempt to humiliate and disparage political foes. All this is being done ostensibly to help these kids, though their actions will make school kids suffer.

Tag Team Villains

Comptroller Peter Franchot

The issue is a parochial one – the lack of air-conditioning in many Baltimore County and Baltimore City schools.

This has been a cause celebre for Franchot, allowing him to savage former County Executive Jim Smith and County Executive Kevin Kamenetz for not installing window air conditioners in thousands of classrooms so studentswon’t swelter in 100-degree heat on a handful of school days each year.

The two jurisdictions have been dragging their feet for a long time. Franchot is right to bring it to public attention.

But his solution isn’t a solution at all – it exacerbates the problem.

Punitive Step

Franchot and Hogan voted last week to withhold $10 million in school building funds from Baltimore County and $5 million from Baltimore City – unless the jurisdictions install AC in 4,000 classrooms by September.

This punitive step accomplishes nothing.

First, it is mission impossible. This massive undertaking would take far longer and requires engineering studies to figure out if such a move would overload half-century-old electrical systems. Then what do you do and who pays for it?

Second, losing $15 million means fewer schools can get a permanent solution – central air-conditioning.

Their action amounts to pure hypocrisy.

Franchot went on a 20-minute rant at the start of Board of Public Works meeting with frenzied denunciations of legislative leaders and Kamenetz. Then he did it again later on. He spewed venom toward the Senate president, the House speaker, the state attorney general, the Baltimore County executive, the board’s own school construction agency, the Baltimore Sun, and even Wall Street bond counsels.

It was a Trumpian performance filled with sound and fury – but it did nothing to fix what’s broken.

Scripted Anger

Hogan wasn’t any more reasonable.

He put on a self-important display of scripted anger, assuring everyone he was doing this for the kids.

He and Franchot played fast and loose with the facts so they could pummel Kamenetz and Democratic legislators. They were cheered on by a crowd filled with supporters, who were allowed to speak.

Anyone who might object or discuss the facts was denied permission to talk. Even State Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a BPW board member, was barely allowed to get in a word to counter the tag-team terrors.

She accurately called this “political theater” that was “outrageous and disgraceful.” Worse, it was “a travesty and illegal.”

Franchot and Hogan want to impose their will on Baltimore County and city leaders and determine education policy for them.

This is a dangerous precedent. Given complaints heard during the BPW meeting, the Hogan-Franchot duo could go after school board actions in other jurisdictions, too.

Easy Solution

Here’s the ultimate irony.

The governor has the ability to solve this dilemma but he hasn’t lifted a finger.

Why? Because he doesn’t want to help Democrats out of a bind of their own making.

All Hogan or former Gov. Martin O’Malley had to do was include extra school construction money in his budget and earmark it specifically for air-conditioning-related engineering studies, window air-conditioners and long-term central air-conditioning projects.

It might prove expensive, but with a budget surplus in the hundreds of millions of dollars Hogan has had the cash to handle this problem. He opted not to do so. The reason is political.

He enjoys whipping up an emotional frenzy to humiliate and embarrass a potential Democratic opponent in 2018 – Kamenetz.

It has nothing to do with “the kids.” Otherwise, Hogan would have resolved the matter back in January.

Franchot knows this problem is ripe for gaining popularity with angry school parents.

It’s political for him, especially in his scripted display of righteous anger.

Abrupt Cut-Offs

Hogan and Franchot didn’t want to hear the facts. They were told directly by a deputy attorney general their action would be illegal.  When she tried to explain the details, Hogan cut her off.

Baltimore County’s school superintendent was there, too. Hogan wouldn’t let him speak.

The state’s long-serving director of the school construction agency quit as a result of this crude power play. Hogan was publicly gleeful.

It was a pre-arranged nasty meeting.

School construction funds for any jurisdiction now could be at risk if local politicians get on the wrong side of the tag-team villains.

It was, as Kopp noted, “the politics of fear and demagoguery.”

It could result in a lawsuit the attorney general says Hogan and Franchot could lose.

It could make Maryland bonds for school construction impossible to sell, according to Kopp, who handles all of Maryland’s bond sales.

Franchot’s Future

It now looks likely that Franchot will face a strong Democratic challenge in 2018. He essentially severed ties last week with the state’s top legislative leaders and Kamenetz, who is term-limited.

Alarmed Democratic lawmakers could feel an urgency to pass veto-proof legislation next year to strip Hogan and Franchot of their ability to further politicize the state’ school construction allocations.

This could turn into a Pyrrhic victory.

There’s no doubt Baltimore City and Baltimore County failed for over a decade to confront the lack of air-conditioned classes. Local leaders never found the courage to raise taxes to pay for immediate, multi-billion-dollar school improvements.

But that is a local dilemma for local voters to address. It is not a state matter.

For Hogan and Franchot to dictate school system decisions is troubling. It could signal more moves to intervene in local matters when they think it helps them politically.

Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. He can be reached at brascovar@hotmail.com

Hogan Wins an Important Victory

 

By Barry Rascovar

Feb. 29, 2016 – Mixing politics and education can be lethal. They are best kept far apart.

That’s why Maryland, for 100 years, has isolated the governor and state lawmakers from the process of choosing the State Superintendent of Schools.

Liberal Democrats in the General Assembly, though, sought to change that.Hogan Wins an Important Victory

They worry that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. might fill the State Board of Education with conservative-leaning members who would name a superintendent with a staunchly right-wing education agenda.

So they floated a bill giving the Senate in Annapolis veto power over the selection of a state schools leader.

That was a very bad idea.

Partisan Rubbish

Hogan’s office called it “complete and utter rubbish” and a malevolent attempt to politicize public education. He stood firm and the bill thankfully died.

Imagine 47 politicians with the ability to manipulate this appointment to serve their own partisan objectives.

Wherever politicians impose their will on educators, bad things can happen in the classroom.

Back in 1914, a study by Abraham Flexner, a noted American educator, concluded Maryland’s public schools were “infested with the vicissitudes of partisan politics.” Two years later, the governor and lawmakers built a dividing wall in which the appointed state board members would, on their own, choose a state school chief for a four-year term.

It’s been that way ever since – and it has worked exceedingly well.

O’Malley vs. Grasmick

When former Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley took office in 2008, he tried to fire Nancy Grasmick as state school superintendent for political reasons. He soon learned he didn’t have the power and that even his appointees to the state education board backed Grasmick.

O’Malley was thinking only as a politician, trying to oust a school chief beloved by his Republican predecessor, Bob Ehrlich, and by another O’Malley foe, former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

He ignored the fact that under Grasmick’s two-decade reign, Maryland consistently ranked at the top of state school systems offering an excellent public education.

Yet politicians’ urge to intervene and impose their ideological will on schooling remains strong.

Look at the situation in Baltimore City, a troubled city with a troubled school system.

Costly School Reforms

The last superintendent, Andres Alonzo, reenergized city schooling and turned much of the system on its head. But after he suddenly left, the city belatedly discovered Alonzo’s grand plans had been costly, leaving the new superintendent $105 million in the hole.

Indeed, the current city school boss, Gregory Thornton, was brought in largely to make difficult down-sizing choices, which pleased no one. He hasn’t won many fans among community and education activists or with the wannabe power brokers in Baltimore politics.

Baltimore School Superintendent Gregory Thornton

Baltimore School Chief Gregory Thornton

They are demanding that Thornton be canned. They insist he’s had 18 months to work a miracle and he still hasn’t done it.

Mayoral candidates are promising a takeover of city schools, placing education decisions firmly in the hands of the next mayor and City Council. That will fix everything, right?

Wrong.

Very wrong.

Appeasing the Multitude

Decisions on education policies are best left to skilled, experienced education managers, overseen by a school board of non-partisan, concerned citizens dedicated to improving the learning environment for children.

Thornton is no neophyte, either, having had considerable success as school chief in Milwaukee in uplifting minority classroom performance and closing a big budget gap.

He may not have Alonzo’s charisma or the ability to appease the multitude of factions vying to control education decisions in Baltimore, but he’s made headway in the face of enormous urban challenges.

His problems could multiply in coming months unless the very same politicians seeking Thornton’s head find a way to persuade the governor to help city schools fend off a new $25 million budget hole caused by declining enrollment.

Hogan has budgeted funds to help three other counties facing that same predicament, but so far he’s shown no willingness to plug in extra money to deal with Baltimore’s far larger enrollment drop.

It was the governor’s adamant opposition to politicizing the state school superintendent’s appointment that forced legislators to abandon their power grab this year. That’s a huge victory for public school children in Maryland.

Following up with added funds to bolster education efforts in Baltimore would be icing on the cake.

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Barry Rascovar’s blog is www.politicalmaryland.com. His email address is barascovar@hotmail.com

 

 

 

Education Politics

By Barry Rascovar

Dec. 14, 2015 – He masks it well, but Gov. Larry Hogan, Jr. plays a good game of partisan politics. Behind that smile and friendly voice is a fierce Republican eager to further the conservative cause.

Education is a prime example of Hogan’s conservative partisanship trumping over sound public policy.

First, he needlessly nixed $68 million in education aid to 14 high-cost subdivisions, basing his action on the false premise that this money was needed to bolster the state’s pension fund. (The money instead sat unused in the state treasury.)

He tossed a bunch of moderate non-partisans off the Baltimore County school board and named one replacement who is an outspoken social conservative with views on public education that are far from mainstream.

Then he announced a surprise gift of $5.6 million to three Republican-voting counties to help them with their loss of state funds due to shrinking enrollment.

That announcement was bogus, too.

No Done Deal

Hogan is talking as though he can write a check to the three counties – Carroll, Garrett and Kent. He can’t.

In reality, he’s only putting a request for this appropriation in his next budget, due in January. It will be up to the Democratic General Assembly to determine if Hogan’s “gift” to three of 24 school systems is warranted.

It’s highly unlikely Hogan’s maneuver to aid just the three Republican counties will be approved as submitted.

Moreover, this funding from Hogan is only a temporary, one-year sop to the three Republican counties. It does nothing to solve their long-range education budget woes caused by too many school buildings and a dwindling number of students.

But the governor got raves from some Republican politicians and angry parents in Carroll County, who have been waging a concerted effort to keep three schools open, despite the fact that flat migration and slowing birthrates has led to a 7 percent drop in school enrollment, with more losses expected over the next five years.

Education Politics

Declining enrollment in Carroll County schools poses dilemma.

Hogan’s aid plan merely kicks the proverbial can down the road – the very same tactic Candidate Hogan railed against when attacking the O’Malley-Brown administration during last year’s campaign.

Carroll’s Conundrum

Following lengthy studies and deliberations, Carroll’s school superintendent recommended closing three under-capacity schools next fall and possibly two more later. This would save at least $5.2 million. He wants to address $14 million in unmet needs within the school system caused by the county leadership’s refusal to raise more local tax dollars for education.

Hogan is pandering to a few of Carroll’s Republican legislators, who want the state to bail them out of this education dilemma of their own making. The cold, hard reality is that maintaining a quality school system is a costly proposition for local governments.

The option they sought to avoid: Closing no-longer-needed schools, which are expensive to maintain. Such a move is intensely unpopular with those that are affected – parents and their children.

But Carroll’s school board refused to take Hogan’s bait. Members recognized they were being offered fool’s gold. They understood this would only add to the anguish and costs.

A true conservative wouldn’t play this type of political game.

Instead, a true conservative would let the downsizing (or “right-sizing”) commence so the school system spends its limited dollars more wisely and efficiently.

Isn’t the conservative approach espoused by Hogan all about eliminating wasteful government spending?

Longer-range Perspective

Rather than taking a partisan, piecemeal and temporary approach to this problem, why not examine the need to make long-range changes in Maryland’s school-aid formula?

Schools with declining enrollments shouldn’t suffer such immediate and deep aid cuts. That’s a flaw in the state’s education formula. Garrett County, impoverished and isolated, is a prime example of how this portion of the formula unfairly harms jurisdictions most in need.

At the same time, other parts of the formula need fixing. Baltimore City is being penalized because its property wealth grew last year due to waterfront developments. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more local money for schools.

There’s an even bigger question not being discussed.

With the state likely to show a huge surplus in January, isn’t it time to take a bipartisan look at possibly raising Maryland’s per-pupil spending as the state’s economy gains momentum?

A panel is studying changes in the school-aid formula, with its final report due next fall. Republicans need to open their minds to supporting a future increase in state funding if they truly want to help schools in Republican counties.

Partisanship won’t disappear, though. We can expect a major tug of war on this issue starting in January and extending through the next gubernatorial election.

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