Parents fight for a special school Budget cuts may close Lida Lee Tall center

January 09, 1991|By Kevin Thomas | Kevin Thomas,Evening Sun Staff

About three times each semester, Charlotte Exner takes about 50 of her undergraduate students at Towson State University down the hall -- and back to elementary school.

The students' destination is Lida Lee Tall Learning Resources Center, a 130-year-old independent school housed at the university, where students and researches statewide are welcome to come in and observe, test students' skills or try out experimental programs.

With Gov. William Donald Schaefer threatening to eliminate the resource center at the end of the school year as a cost-saving measure, parents have organized to convince state officials that the school is invaluable as one of the few places for testing educational methods and theories.

Originally part of Towson State's teacher education program, the center was placed under the direction of the state's Educational Coordinating Committee in 1982 when its budget also was threatened. Its mission was subsequently altered to make it a tool for educational research.

Exner, an assistant professor of occupational therapy, said the center allows her undergraduates to observe the "normal" behavior of children so they can better understand the limitations of children with disabilities.

And, while having children used in effect as guinea pigs might alarm some parents, Lida Lee Tall parents say the outsiders are not only welcome, they may help save the school from extinction.

The center embodies aspects of both a public and private school. It receives oversight from a board of directors, whose members are chosen by the governor. And currently state funds constitute the bulk of the school's resources, with parents paying an annual tuition of about $1,170 each.

Exner and other researchers said the public funding is worth it and that no alternatives exist to what the center offers scientists and educators.

"You cannot get access to children in the public school system," Exner said. "Any research study would have to go through months of clearance, and our students don't have that time frame to conduct their studies."

But state officials say the resource center may not be involved in enough research to save it from the budget ax. Schaefer has decided not to include about $500,000 in funding for the center in his fiscal 1992 budget proposal.

Judy Sachwald, the governor's education liaison, said the school has become expendable in light of the state government's serious financial problems.

Referring to the school's involvement in research, Sachwald said, "They do some of that, absolutely. But when you get into a difficult economic situation and have to examine how much of it they do, that's where the Catch-22 comes in."

Sachwald described the Lida Lee Tall situation as "one of the tougher things I've worked on."

"When you visit the school and you see children happily engaged in learning, it makes you want to smile," she continued. "It makes you wish that all children can have that experience. But then you come back to that tough economic question."

State Sen. John A. Pica Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, said he was unsuccessful Monday in persuading Schaefer to continue funding the resource center. Some Lida Lee Tall students live in Baltimore.

Pica said he approached the governor with a wish list that included the center, but that the answer from Schaefer was "no, no, no."

Still, Pica said he is hopeful that Schaefer will restore funding for the school in a supplemental budget submitted during the General Assembly session. A lot, he said, will depend on how legislators respond to tax increases the governor is likely to propose.

Linking the school's survival to taxes produced a mixed response among parents whose children attend the center.

"At this point, nothing really surprises me," said Steve Young, whose daughter attends the school's kindergarten program.

Young said he doubts that the state's decision to eliminate the resource center is strictly a budgetary one. Several parents say they believe state officials have targeted the school because they believe it is essentially a private school subsidized with public dollars.

Sachwald denied that assertion, saying, "I don't think that, and I don't know anyone in the governor's office who thinks that."

Some parents said they are willing to pay more, including higher taxes, if it would save the school. A majority of parents agreed last week that those who are financially able would be willing to increase their tuition to raise an additional $72,000 if the state agrees to continue some funding.

Carol Burke, whose daughter attends first grade at the school, said the voluntary tuition increase shows a willingness on the part of parents to "tax themselves."

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