Lida Lee parents fight 'elitist' image in campaign to keep school open

March 18, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- They put on a textbook effort to save the $500,000 needed to run their school -- but the check is not in the mail.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's 2,000-page budget carries the name Lida Lee Tall Learning Resources Center. But no dollar figure follows the name. No budget request has been made.

So parents and other supporters of the Towson school went to work to save what they insist is a resource of extraordinary value tothe state. They honed their arguments. They recruited allies in politics and business.

They even admitted they had been less assiduous than they might have been about "exporting" to other schools the lessons learned at their school -- the institution's primary reason for being.

They needed every bit of evidence they could find.

Although he has made education a high priority of his governorship, Mr. Schaefer saw the 125-year-old institution as expendable. Never mind that children at the school read and compute at levels far beyond their grades and years -- and far beyond the state average.

Difficult and painful decisions had to be made in the budget-making process of 1991, say aides to the governor, and this school may yet languish and expire along with other worthy programs that government must abandon at least temporarily this year.

Mr. Schaefer heard the lamentations of many in a year when he faced a deficit of several hundred million dollars. Many made compelling arguments. In some cases, the governor took extraordinary measures to find money. In some cases, he relented and reinstated programs.

In the case of Lida Lee Tall, though, he refused to listen to the parents' appeal.

The line had to be drawn, his aides said.

So the governor did not hear the story of Doris Gray, the mother of a 19-year-old Lida Lee Tall graduate.

"Ten years ago," Mrs. Gray said, "no one could have convinced me that my daughter had the potential to become a doctor. Today, she's a sophomore at Clark-Atlanta University, majoring in biology and hoping to go to medical school.

"Donita has all of the equipment she needs to become whatever she wants to become. Donita knows how to read, and she learned how to read at Lida Lee Tall."

A fine testimonial, to be sure.

But not enough for this year. This year, the standard of proof is higher than it has been in a decade.

The legislature has decided, for example, to stop publishing Maryland Magazine, though almost everyone agrees it has been a useful vehicle for promoting Maryland as a place to do business and live.

The Statewide Nutrition Assistance Program has been terminated. With a quarter-million state dollars, SNAP made grants to food kitchens whose ability to serve people was sometimes interrupted when delivery trucks or refrigerators broke down.

A program allowing bereavement leave for inmates of state prisons was terminated.

An oyster replenishment program was dropped.

What could be said, then, on behalf of an experimental elementary school that arguably could be closed without inflicting much pain -- unless sending children to public school involves pain that a handful of Marylanders should be able to avoid.

The governor's aides argued that Lida Lee Tall children were getting what amounts to a "freebie for the middle class."

The parents replied that 33 percent of the students at the school are African-American, 12 percent from other minority groups. Twenty percent of the students are on full scholarship. More than 70 percent come from Baltimore.

But the administration's argument found at least a few adherents in the assembly -- some of whom suggested that any school could succeed if it had the parental commitment and public resources of a Lida Lee Tall.

"What are we doing for Charles County?" demanded Delegate Stephen J. Braun, D-Charles. He referred to Lida Lee Tall as "a special little school that does well for a small bunch of kids and the hell with the rest of us."

Delegate John S. Morgan, R-Howard, agreed that the school's parents appeared "a little elitist" when they testified before his Committee onConstitutional and Administrative Law.

But he said the school is important and not just because of the parents or their children.

"This is a very, very important teaching resource -- allowing student-teachers to go into a classroom that works," he said.

On other programs threatened by the economic downturn this year, Mr. Schaefer relented -- and, in the end, that has become a problem for the parents of Lida Lee Tall. Having been accused of flip-flopping on various matters, Mr. Schaefer might be unwilling to waffle again.

If that is so, the parents have wasted a lobbying campaign designed with considerable knowledge of Mr. Schaefer's "hot buttons."

The newly refocused Lida Lee Tall would have a math-science emphasis reminiscent of Mr. Schaefer's so-far failing effort to create a math-science high school in Maryland.

The school also would have an entrepreneurial program based skits and stories from businessmen. The governor is big on business development.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.