- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick yesterday said she has requested that all school systems account for incentives, including community service credits and transportation, they offered students to attend a political rally that became a demonstration against Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

“The school systems are telling us how they transported students,” Mrs. Grasmick told The Washington Times, adding that she will forward the results to Mr. Ehrlich next week. “Did the PTA pay or did the schools pay? … The governor also asked me to look into [which school districts] issued the credit and [which released] students early.”

The Times reported Wednesday that Mr. Ehrlich had asked Mrs. Grasmick to investigate circumstances of Monday’s rally, saying his concerns centered on one school district giving community service credits and another that paid for buses to shuttle students to and from the event.

Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, also criticized the Maryland State Teachers Association (MSTA), a co-sponsor of the rally, saying “the leadership of that union simply leans to the Democratic Party, and everyone knows it.”

MSTA President Patricia A. Foerster defended her organization, saying it did not endorse a plan to give community service credits and did not ask schools to close early and provide transportation.

“All of this brouhaha right now had nothing to do with the organizers of the rally,” said Mrs. Foerster, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association and represents 59,000 teachers statewide. “The organization made it clear that the only children that we wanted there are children that would be with their parents.”

She added: “We are an organization that bases its support for political leaders based on our positions and resolutions.”

Montgomery County offered its students community service credits for rally attendance. Pam Meador, the county’s student service learning specialist, decided that rally attendance would be worth two community service credits.

Since 1992, Maryland schools have required students to perform 60 hours of community service before graduating from high school. Counties are given latitude in deciding what is acceptable as community service.

Mrs. Foerster said Mr. Ehrlich is trying to divert attention from the rally’s purpose by harping on the issue of community service credits.

“We regret that [the governor] is trying to stifle public discussion of the issue,” she said. “I believe that he is trying to intimidate parents, teachers and children by using his bully pulpit.”

Prince George’s County closed its schools two hours early to allow teachers and students to attend the rally. The $9,000 cost of chartering buses to transport students and teachers was covered by private donations, school officials said.

Other school districts closed early, used school buses to carry students and offered them “no homework” passes for their attendance at the rally, which organizers said attracted 12,000 people — including hundreds of students.

“I have very strong feelings about students missing any hours of school,” Mrs. Grasmick said. “We have already missed a lot of days with the weather.”

Critics of the rally said the school districts were self-serving in encouraging student participation and the schools were hypocritical to ask for more funds while spending public money to inflate the rally’s attendance.

The rally’s aim was to drum up support for full funding of the Thornton Act, an education improvement plan passed by the General Assembly in 2002 that calls for an additional $1.3 billion in education spending by 2008.

The Thornton plan calls for $365 million in extra education spending this year, and Mr. Ehrlich has funded all but $40 million of that amount, citing the need to close a $700 million deficit left by his predecessor, Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat.

At Monday’s rally outside the governor’s residence, demonstrators at first called on Mr. Ehrlich to fully fund the Thornton Act, then called for a recount of the 2002 gubernatorial election.

Mrs. Grasmick delivered a speech early at the rally, but neither Mr. Ehrlich nor Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was invited to speak. The state schools superintendent said she left the rally before some demonstrators began the call for a recount.

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