Two weeks after the Baltimore school board voted to connect controversial "Channel One" news and advertising programs into city schools, the board's president says he may investigate whether the contract can be voided.
But one top school official today said the city could probably not legally back out of the contract.
Several board members seemed puzzled last night by comments from leaders of a parents' groups who contend their opinions were ignored when the board contracted with Channel One. Board members at last night's meeting also seemed surprised to learn the company supplying video equipment in exchange for having the schools air Channel One may decide at any time to take back its hardware.
The city has already signed a contract for Channel One, produced by Knoxville, Tenn.-based Whittle Communications. It was approved for use in middle and high school homeroom and social studies classes beginning this fall. It will take six months for all the programming to begin.
Gary Thrift, director of high schools for the city education department, said today he doubts whether the board can back out of its obligations with Channel One.
"The contract has been signed, sealed and delivered," Thrift said. "The contract will be upheld unless the board decides to pursue another option.
"Apparently, the board members did not have all the information regarding this issue and I think after they review everything, they will decide to stay with the commercial [company]," Thrift said.
Channel One, Thrift added, "has enough interest from other school systems around the country where, frankly, they would probably not hold us binding" if the contract were legally contested.
City Solicitor Neal M. Janey said today he was unfamiliar with the particulars of the Channel One contract but the contract may be able to be voided depending on its terms.
Channel One is used in more than 20 school systems nationwide, but has spurred controversy because some believe students shouldn't be subjected to paid advertising in the classroom for the sake of obtaining free video equipment for the VTC schools.
"We may end up trying to find out from lawyers if we can void the contract," said Joseph L. Smith, president of the school board. "That's down the road."
Administrators also will look at the contract and review the process to determine whether community and parents' groups were left out of the decision process, said Douglas J. Neilson, a school spokesman.
But Neilson added, "I don't know if the contract can be stopped."
Some speakers at the meeting said confusion over the issue is emblematic of the need to cultivate more community and parent involvement in any school system restructuring.
In Channel One, two minutes of commercials for consumer products and 10 minutes of daily programming will be beamed by satellite into classes.
Individual schools choose to participate. In return, the schools are given $50,000 worth of video equipment, including video cassette recorders and color television sets free.
The president of the city principals' union told the board this month that most principals look forward to making that deal for their schools.
"This is an advertiser's dream," Anthony Stewart, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, the city's largest PTA group, said at the meeting.
Afterward, Stewart said, "I just think we're selling our kids down the river." He said students should not be exploited and forced to watch more television, making them vulnerable to advertising.
Stewart said he was upset parent associations didn't have input into the selection of Channel One.
Eddie Fentress, a self-described "grass-roots parent" and secretary of the Baltimore City Advisory Council, said she was concerned the programming would cause financial frustration for parents who can't afford the advertised products.
"We feel with class advertising, we run into the risk of material values superseding educational values," Fentress said. "Students should not and need not be exploited this. . . way."
In defense against such criticism, Whittle has said it doesn't air commercials promoting alcohol, tobacco or contraceptives.
But Stewart charged that the program "wouldn't go into Montgomery or Howard counties," two of the state's richest suburban counties. "The parents there are too astute."
Baltimore County's Board of Education plans to vote July 13 on whether to allow Channel One in its classrooms come fall.