Parents and a wide assortment of community groups are, once again, angry at the Baltimore school system -- saying they have been ignored in the devising of a decentralization plan and then taken for granted as that plan was about to be pushed through the school board.
What sets this controversy apart from previous, similar complaints, is that this time the school system went to some lengths to include others in the planning: the teachers union, the principals union and the church-based group called BUILD, all under the watchful eye of a keenly interested Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
An essential part of decentralization -- which means giving each school more authority over its own affairs -- is that it should encourage more involvement by the community in education. Yet once again, community groups say they have been shut out.
Their anger became so clear at a hearing last week that the school board will probably delay acting on the plan.
"We as parents find ourselves dealing with the same old problems that we very much resent having to face once again -- lousy communication, a yawning gap between school system rhetoric about the importance of parent involvement and school system practices which provoke parent protest, and the token nature of the involvement opportunities which are presented to us," said Jo Ann Robinson, speaking for the Western High School Parent-Teacher Association.
"There was only limited parental involvement during the formation of the plan," said Sarah Daignault, of the League of Women Voters. "There is only limited parent involvement in the structures that are outlined in the plan itself."
She pointed out that she is a member of the Community Mobilization Task Force, organized by Superintendent Richard C. Hunter to increase the public's role in the school system. Yet, said Ms. Daignault, she had received no notice of the hearings on the decentralization proposal -- which represents a dramatic shift away from central control of the city's 177 schools.
"I know this sounds like a broken record," she said, "but how are we going to get meaningful input from parents if they are not actively included in the workings of this school system? Education does not work well without parental support. We have to be part of the process."
Chickie Grayson, president of the Citizens Planning and Housing Association, said her group had received complaints from other organizations that had tried unsuccessfully to obtain copies of the plan from the school system before the hearings.
"We are unaware of any outreach that has occurred," she said.
She called on the school board to hold an "open forum" to discuss decentralization, and said she had the backing of the Baltimore Urban League, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Metropolitan Education Coalition and other organizations.
Joseph L. Smith, president of the school board, said that the school board remained determined to hear all views.
"We're not going to shortchange what we've heard," he said. "I can assure you we'll try to give all parties as much input into this as we can."
The decentralization proposal -- which is expected to begin with a pilot program affecting 20 schools next fall -- came about as a result of the most recent contract with the Baltimore Teachers Union.
The contract called for a joint committee of administrators and teachers to work out a "restructuring" plan, along with representatives from the church-based group Baltimoreans United and Leadership Development.
"We are certainly in support of parentinvolvement," said Dr. Hunter last week, when asked if parents should have been given wider role, "but we were bound by the contract."
The plan, which took more than a year to hammer out, envisions the establishment of school councils, composed of parents, neighborhood representatives, teachers and the principal, to run the affairs of each school. It calls for all decisions to be made by "consensus," rather than by vote.
Some of the same speakers who complained about the lack of public involvement in creating the plan also questioned whether consensus could work. Trying to achieve consensus on a council of people with markedly different perspectives, they said, could become a tedious, frustrating exercise.
Ms. Grayson and Susan Leviton, of a group called Advocates for Children and Youth, said they believed the plan to be far too vague about what authority each school would actually have -- and seemed to leave open a strong role for the central office, which is supposed to be diminished by decentralization.
Irene Dandridge, president of the BTU, reacted angrily to Ms. Leviton's remarks.
"She hasn't read the proposal. That's her problem," Ms. Dandridge said. "I don't think she understands the meaning of consensus."
In fact, Ms. Leviton had presented the board with a nine-page critique of the proposal which expanded on her criticisms.