Josh Kurtz: Two More Giants Exit the Maryland Scene

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On the heels of William Donald Schaefer’s death, two more of Maryland’s savviest political players are due to ride off into the sunset in a few weeks – and neither has ever run for public office.

It’s fitting somehow that state Schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick and Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jerry Weast are leaving at the same time. Though they are hardly friends or allies, the two have led parallel careers – careers that have frequently been in conflict, even as they’ve been inexorably linked.

Both are survivors – and masters of the political game. The roster of people they’ve outwitted and outmuscled and outlasted is extraordinary. And both deserve some of the credit for Maryland ranking No. 1 the past few years in national education test scores.

Grasmick owes her whole 20-year tenure as state education chief to politics. Her husband, Baltimore lumber baron and developer Lou Grasmick, was a friend and donor to William Donald Schaefer, and Schaefer gave his friend’s wife her start in state government – first as secretary of juvenile services, then as schools superintendent. After a career in the Baltimore County schools, no one imagined that this woman with the retro hairdo and the taut smile would last in the state job for two decades.

Through the years, as the power, influence and visibility of the Schaefer crowd has waxed and waned, Nancy Grasmick has been a constant. It’s probably no coincidence that she’s butted heads most severely with two governors that Schaefer hated – Parris Glendening and Martin O’Malley – while being so close to the one who seemed to represent a Schaefer Restoration in Annapolis – Bob Ehrlich – that he offered her a chance to be his lieutenant governor.

The irony is that this most politically-wired woman is credited in many corners with keeping politics out of state education policymaking. At the very least, she limited the influence of governors to dictate policy, getting all dewy-eyed when she talked about “the children” – and woe to anyone whose agenda seemed to be about something broader and bigger than the kids, or who tried to shape policy from 30,000 feet (or muscle into her territory).

By most accounts, Grasmick has visited just about every public school in Maryland, and as she takes her victory lap now she is being credited for the state’s high test scores, for focusing on underprivileged and minority students, and for allowing individual school leaders to retain as much power as possible in this era of national standards and testing mania.

But it’s hard to say exactly how much credit Grasmick truly deserves. She has always demanded high standards of teachers, students and school districts – even before that was in fashion. She has always projected the image of a kind and compassionate figure – just another educator: first among equals, perhaps, but one who is down in the trenches with everyone else, as invested in the success of each child as their parents and teachers.

Yet as the job is written, the state schools superintendent can only accomplish so much. Performance is more likely to be driven at the school district level – where investment in education, as much as anything else, is the true predictor of success. The state’s most successful school districts – like Howard and Montgomery counties – are in places where taxpayers have made a conscious decision to spend heavily on education.

So Maryland – like Grasmick – is riding the coattails of those wealthy jurisdictions and the formidable test scores their students rack up year after year. (Of course, the state invests heavily in school districts like Baltimore city and Prince George’s County, which despite Grasmick’s efforts continue to lag because of poverty, a host of other social ills, political infighting and dysfunctional government.)

Grasmick brought a lot of dedication to the job, along with a back-breaking work ethic and an iron will. But to her critics, she will always be something of a political hack – and it may be hard for her to completely elude that tag.

Weast, on the other hand, was an unknown quantity when he arrived in Montgomery County a dozen years ago, a small-town huckster who sweet-talked his way into the hearts and minds supposedly sophisticated county leaders but who had never managed a school system with a fraction of the size or diversity of Montgomery. He talked boldly about closing the achievement gap between white and minority students, but it seemed like a fool’s errand – after all, his predecessor, Paul Vance, who was African-American, hadn’t been able to do it. So what gave anyone the idea that Weast could?

The length of Weast’s tenure in this day and age has been extraordinary. Consider, for example, that neighboring Prince George’s County has had five school superintendents in the time that Weast has worked in Montgomery. Weast has outlasted County Executive Doug Duncan; former County Councilman Mike Subin, who was a sharp critic when he headed the Council’s education committee; three heads of the county teachers’ union, and a formerly head-strong, turf-conscious school board that seemed to melt like butter in his hands.

Weast, like Grasmick, has his share of critics. But he kept his word – he has focused like a laser on minority achievement and has helped close the gap (though not as much as most people would like). He guarded the school district’s budget jealously, and went toe to toe with anyone who dared trim it. And all the while he kept his small-town charm – he still refers to his wife as “my bride” to this day.

As a personality, Weast’s newly appointed successor, Joshua Starr, seems like a totally different animal. He grew up in a wealthy suburb like Montgomery County and went to Harvard – two facts that should serve him well. But he has worked in both New York City and been schools chief in Stamford, Conn., a smaller district that nevertheless shares some of Montgomery County’s demographics and challenges. It’s almost a given, though, that there will be continuity with Weast’s policies.

What’s next for Grasmick and Weast? Way back in 1998, according to Fraser Smith’s valuable biography of William Donald Schaefer, Lou Grasmick was anxious for his wife to retire. Schaefer, who knew a thing or two about forced retirements, counseled against it.

“She will wilt like a rose” if she gives up the top gig at the Education Department, Schaefer told his old friend.

Thirteen years later – having outlasted one tormentor, Glendening, and having beaten back an attempt by O’Malley to oust her, Grasmick is leaving on her own terms. She’s 72 now – a good age to enjoy a true retirement. But it would not be surprising to see her remain in the public eye.

Weast, meanwhile, is just 63 – young enough to have a next act, if he wants it. Would he want to follow in Grasmick’s footsteps? Possible, but not likely. He’s seen the limitations of that job – and he may not encounter such a pliant school board and media in Baltimore. What’s more, his ego might compel him to shoot higher.

Because they’ve both been so successful, Grasmick and Weast have simultaneously made things easy and difficult for their eventual successors. Either way, it’s hard to imagine Maryland civic life without them.

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

Previous Center Maryland columns by Josh Kurtz:

Six Degrees of William Donald Schaefer

The Lion in Winter

O’Malley’s (Coast to Coast) March

This Time It's Personal

Seinfeld in Maryland

The First 107 Days

Team of Rivals?

Rob Garagiola’s Political Highway

Blame the Teachers!

The Nine Lives of the ICC

The Incredible Shrinking City

Paying the Fare
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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.