Proposed one-week school closing may fTC mean a tough child-care hunt


November 11, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

Tiffanie Walker has four children in Baltimore public schools, an unemployed husband and a hard time making ends meet on the odd jobs that come her way.

So the news that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke may shut schools for a week to save money hit her like a body blow.

"School was a haven for me," said Walker, who has children at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. "He's putting my children, literally, on the street for a week, because I won't be there to take care of them."

And she warned that the school shutdown would make a mockery of the mayor's oft-stated commitment to education.

"This is supposed to be 'the City That Reads,' and he's taking them out of the place that's teaching them to read?" said Walker.

Her sentiments were echoed by other parents and teachers reacting to Schmoke's bombshell Friday morning.

The mayor said a five-day "furlough" was the fairest way to cut $7.5 million from the city's school budget, part of an overall $8.8 million cut in school funding forced by massive reductions in state aid.

The move is in addition to $1.3 million in cuts to school programs directly aided by the state, including high-profile dropout prevention and pre-school programs.

In proposing a weeklong school shutdown sometime this winter, Schmoke bypassed about $10 million in other possible cuts outlined by school officials -- saying they may yet be needed to cope with state cutbacks still to come.

But the decision has drawn a bitter reaction from some parents, who say it will hurt education and put an added burden on families who must hire child-care.

When school is open, "I know my children will be fed, I know they will be in a warm, comfortable place," Walker said. "I know the teachers are not baby-sitters, but I know that my children will be taken care of."

Walker helps pay the bills by doing a variety of jobs, including house-cleaning, ironing and running errands.

"I really have to go out and hustle for breakfast, lunch and dinner for my children," she said. "Even on the spring vacation, they're left alone many times. The schools help me take care of my children.

"At home for a week without a teacher, my children are going to lose out," she said. "For me, this is very upsetting."

Marcia Sturdivant, another parent with children at Robert W. Coleman Elementary, has mixed feelings about the mayor's plan.

"If there's any other way, I think they should seek those ways first," said Sturdivant, who has three children at the school. "We're already too far behind. I would look at it as a last resort."

Sturdivant said that it would take children additional time to catch up from what they lose during a week's layoff.

"I have seen, just over the weekend from Friday to Monday, how much the children lose if they're not reinforced at home," she said.

But she also said that "in an emergency, we all have to do things. I would vote for it, if it were a one-time thing."

Parents are likely to turn their anger against the mayor, warned Warren H. Preston Jr., president of the PTA at Harford Heights Elementary School, the city's largest elementary school.

"It's going to have a tremendous effect on families, especially those working parents," Preston said. "They're going to have to make special arrangements for children to be home."

Although a shutdown may save money in the short run, "the effect on the children and the parents is going to be an adverse one."

But the plan got some reluctant support from Tanya Jackson, a parent of three children at Barclay Elementary-Middle School, where she works as a teacher's aide.

"As far as the kids are concerned, we can probably get some educational packets together for the week they're going to be out," she said.

And she said that in a crisis, "we all have to roll with the punches. It's better to have furloughs than have people losing their jobs."

Meanwhile, the legal justification for Schmoke's move was still being discussed following the mayor's announcement.

State law mandates a 180-day school year, unless a district applies to the state school board for a waiver, which can be granted under three circumstances: natural disaster, civil disaster and severe weather.

Schmoke said Friday morning that the city would seek a waiver under the "civil disaster" provision, citing the severe, last-minute nature of the state aid reductions that forced him into the decision.

That would be "a novel application" of the waiver provision, said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel for opinions and advice in the state attorney general's office.

"I really don't think that this statute, in its waiver provisions . . . was looking toward a circumstance where schools are closed for an extended period of time for a budget crisis," he said.

But even if that argument failed to fly, Schwartz said the city may be able to justify a weeklong school shutdown under provisions of the emergency budget bill passed by the state legislature last month.

A section of that law states that Baltimore or any county "may take any action necessary . . . to prudently manage its fiscal affairs" under the budget law, despite what might be mandated under other laws.

That does not offer the city a blank check, Schwartz said. The city still would have to show that it sought other alternatives and rejected them for good reason before turning to a week's shutdown of the schools. But the new budget law "does seem to be, potentially, a separate basis for the city's action," Schwartz said.

Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state Board of Education, said he understood the mayor would be seeking a waiver under the disaster provisions.

"I would be very skeptical of anything that reduced the instructional days of students, which are already insufficient," he said. But Embry said he would be willing to hear the city's arguments.

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