Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is going begging to the state again.
This time, he isn't going to be asking for money. All he wants is five days to be cut from this school year. But that may be just as hard to get as the tax reform he is so desperately seeking.
In a stunning announcement yesterday, the self-proclaimed education mayor announced he would close schools for one week in February as part of his plan to absorb severe cuts in state aid. He said he is willing to risk a court challenge.
This drastic step -- the first time that schools in Maryland would be closed because of fiscal crisis -- would drop the number of school days below the 180 required by state law. That requirement can be waived by state education officials because of natural or civil disasters. And in Mr. Schmoke's mind, Baltimore's "unusual, unanticipated and swift reduction in available resources" should be categorized as disastrous.
But he must convince state education officials that the weeklong furlough is the best way to achieve the projected $7.5 million savings in education spending. And that's going to be difficult at best.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick "feels very strongly that the options taken to deal with the budget crisis should not impinge on instructional programs," said Valerie Cloutier, an attorney for the state school board. "She feels they are exploiting the children and they should exercise other options."
Last year, the State Board of Education unsuccessfully lobbied Gov. William Donald Schaefer to extend the school year. State school board President Robert C. Embry Jr. said that while he would listen to Mayor Schmoke's waiver request, his "inclination is to be very skeptical of anything that reduces the time students spend in the classroom."
Mayor Schmoke's announcement was made after weeks of reviewing money-saving proposals by city agencies. While other departments lost a total of 544 jobs, the school bureaucracy lost only 27. The mayor says further school system personnel cuts will come next year as part of his plan to reorganize city government.
Angry parents asked why students bore the brunt of yesterday's cuts.
"There must be other ways to save money," said Peggy Roth, a mother of two schoolchildren who lives in Canton. "I think what they are doing is desperate and unfair. We've had so many programs cut in education already, and I bet no parents were even consulted in this decision."
"My hope is that parents will be upset but also that they will understand it's not the mayor," said Mr. Schmoke, implying that the state is to blame for this crisis. "The mayor provided money for schools."
But the whole discussion may turn out to be moot if the city does not qualify for waiver of the state law requiring that it provide 180 school days to students.
Officials in the attorney general's office said the city's fiscal plight does not qualify it for a waiver -- approved only in times of severe weather or civil unrest.
Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the attorney general's office, said Mr. Schmoke could invoke a new law that authorizes local officials to bypass certain laws in order to balance their budgets. The new budget reconciliation amendment, approved during the recent special legislative session, gave jurisdictions the power to reduce the historically untouchable education budgets.
However, the law also requires jurisdictions to explore all avenues for cutting budgets before making cuts that affect instruction.
"This statute is not a free pass to violate state laws willy-nilly," said Mr. Schwartz. "It seems to me that when it comes to the policy of a minimum number of school days, that reflects something crucial to the education process. And it should only be done as a last resort."
Baltimore School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey had, in fact, proposed other money-saving alternatives to Mayor Schmoke in the last few weeks -- including a give-back of vacation days, no purchases of new books and eliminating sick pay.
But Mayor Schmoke said those measures did not save as much as a weeklong furlough. And he said those measures would have taken a heavy toll on employees at the end of the year when many are trying to pay bills and prepare for the holidays.
"I'm not saying I'm doing cartwheels, but I think it's a wise move," said Gertrude Williams, principal of Barclay Elementary School in Charles Village. "There are things we can do to keep the learning going by sending homework packets home with the students. To me, it's better to have a week off than taking a program here and a program there and weakening the whole curriculum."
Edward J. Gallagher, Baltimore's budget director, said the plan called for closing schools in the winter so the city could maximize fuel savings.