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C. Fraser Smith: Alonso and enduring promise

Dr. Andres Alonso, who resigned this week as Baltimore schools superintendent, turned his alchemist’s hand on the trust issue in Annapolis.

Many others had dealt with it, but few were as successful as Alonso. He may have been Exhibit A in the city’s insistence that it could be trusted with state money.

The late Howard P. “Pete” Rawlings, when he was chairman of the Appropriations Committee, felt obliged one year to violate a cardinal rule of survival in politics:

He blocked the award of money to his home district, Baltimore. The city had failed to meet commitments it made in a special education lawsuit. He could be trusted, Rawlings was telling his doubting colleagues. He would insist on hometown follow-through, knowing it would not be the last time the city needed help.

Decades later, Rawlings’ daughter, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake, has had to confront the reality again. Her chief ally: Andres Alonso.

As the mayor prepared to ask for a major financial commitment from the state, she needed evidence that Baltimore had the managerial capacity to accomplish a $1.1 billion school building and rehabilitation project.

Alonso, well on his way to achieving the unachievable in city schools, was the proof: He was making the system look like a system. The figures on dropouts, low graduation rates and performance on state achievement tests were all improved.

Alonso was getting a handle on all of this dysfunction. While the superintendent of schools in Washington, D. C., was foundering in a sea of political, union and parental discord, Alonso was riding a wave of approval.

Given this unlikely legion of supporters, Alonso was a powerful lobbying force. There had been some unsettling disclosures about money management in his system, but Alonso’s record on educating kids was impressive.

To be sure, there were reasons the Democrat-dominated General Assembly decided to help: Baltimore is an important source of Democratic voters, the building project would be a source of jobs and other economic activity and many lawmakers have personal connections to the state’s largest city.

Nevertheless, assembly leaders needed reassurances that the $1.1 billion project could be managed well. Assembly leaders were decidedly cool to the request at first. The city’s basic financial posture was not strong, they said. Was more debt a good idea?

At the same time, the mayor and others were making the case for an overhaul. Kids ought not to be taught in decrepit schools, some of which lacked only barbed wire to look like small prisons.

So, even as it approved a complex borrowing plan, the assembly approved the project with a major caveat: The 50 new buildings will be built under supervision of the Maryland Stadium Authority, an agency with which assembly leaders have confidence. The rehabbing of buildings will be handled by the school department.

Responsibility was spread around a bit. At the beginning of the assembly session last January, House Speaker Michael E. Busch and the Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. had great misgivings. Busch later became a big promoter of the project, and Miller supported it as well.

Alonso, to be sure, was seen as a part of the management structure — though no one could have been given any guarantee that he would be here at the completion or, as it turns out, at the beginning of the project.

Still, his work here could have enduring importance. Baltimore should have an advantage as it begins to search for the best available talent. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by the possibility of presiding over a rebirth?

In addition to many other things, Baltimoreans should be grateful to Alonso for proving that progress was possible and for leaving their schools in such a promising posture.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is [email protected]