Change in school aid rule assailed Federal funds are at stake

February 08, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

The parents were angry -- and they let the Baltimore school board know it.

The target of their ire: a change in the way the city distributes federal aid to disadvantaged children.

Speakers at an emotional hearing last night blasted a change due to go into effect in September that would make it tougher for elementary schools to qualify for federal Chapter I aid.

The parents questioned the logic of requiring that more students at a particular school be eligible for the free lunch program to qualify that school for Chapter I aid.

"My son has learning disabilities," said Wendy Spindler, the parent of a child at Curtis Bay Elementary School. "What I'd like to understand and to know is, what does the lunches have to do with the kid's learning."

"Because we can afford a dollar lunch, you want to take this program away from us?" asked an angry Dora Adamski, parent of a pupil at Highlandtown Elementary School.

But board members, though sympathetic, said the change was dictated by the need to put scarce Chapter I dollars where they would help the greatest number of needy students.

"There is no pleasant way to redistribute funds with a program like that," said board member Meldon S. Hollis Jr. "We understand that there's going to be difficult fallout."

But Hollis said the board will look hard at alternatives in light of last night's emotional protests.

The Chapter I program, due to receive $43.1 million in federal funds next year, pays for extra teachers, counselors, materials and other programs aimed at needy students who are performing below grade levels.

In Baltimore, a school qualifies as a Chapter I site if at least 25 percent of its students are eligible for the free lunch program -- a measure of the parents' income levels.

But state and federal guidelines suggest that schools should meet a tougher standard. They would give Chapter I aid only to schools that match or exceed the system-wide average of students eligible for free lunches.

In Baltimore, 57.2 percent of all students qualify for the free lunch program. And last May, the board accepted a recommendation to adopt that standard for elementary schools, starting in September.

That means schools that currently qualify for Chapter I, but have fewer students on the free lunch program, could see their funding disappear under the change.

The parents argued that children should not be penalized simply because their schools don't meet an arbitrary income yardstick.

Peggy Simmons, the mother of a student at Curtis Bay Elementary, said the loss of Chapter I funds would cost the school a badly needed guidance counselor.

"Don't let our children down because some of their parents work, both mother and father, and can afford their lunches," she said.

Another parent, Jim Dugent, whose child goes to Highlandtown Elementary, threatened legal action unless the board backs down.

Hollis said after the meeting that Chapter I tends to be most

effective at schools with the highest number of eligible students.

The board has no formal plan yet to back away from the change in Chapter I eligibility, he said, but is likely come back to the issue in the wake of last night's complaints.

Also last night, the board approved and sent to the Department of Finance a $551.2 million budget proposal for fiscal 1992, an increase of 9.5 percent over last year's spending. Joseph Lee Smith, president of the board, warned that the budget could be cut by the City Council.

Judson C. Porter, director of fiscal management, also warned that the schools could lose $2.9 million if the state goes ahead with plans to use some aid to boost its school performance program.

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