Local school systems can't balance their budgets by dropping below the minimum state mandate of 180 days in school, the State Board of Education and state Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday.
The board unanimously agreed to turn down waivers of the 180-day minimum from localities trying to make up budget shortfalls. The move pre-empts Baltimore's plan to save $7.5 million by closing schools for five days.
The news was greeted calmly by city spokesman Clinton R. Coleman, who said the city hasn't asked for a waiver and may never ask for one. Earlier this month, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he planned to close schools for a week in February.
The city may make up the money in other ways or go ahead with the furlough plan but make up lost school time later in the school year, Mr. Coleman said.
"[The mayor] has never ruled out making up the time," he said. "When it becomes apparent that we're going to drop below 180 days, then we will request the waivers or make some other arrangements."
Only Baltimore has suggested dropping below the 180-day requirement to save money, but state officials are concerned that other cash-strapped localities might view similar measures as options.
Students need more time in school, not less, Dr. Grasmick said, pointing to results from last week's state report card that show most school systems struggling to meet minimum performance standards.
The report card also showed Baltimore schools lagging far behind others in the state in virtually every area.
School systems that fall below the minimum 180 days without state permission could face a loss of state funds, board attorney Valerie Cloutier said. The waiver issue was discussed yesterday at the board's regular monthly meeting, held in Prince Frederick in Calvert County.
The loss of millions of dollars in state funds prompted the city to consider closing schools to make up a $7.5 million shortfall in the education budget. The current plan is to save the money by furloughing teachers for five days.
That does not necessarily mean closing schools, Mr. Coleman said.
Other localities have considered furloughing teachers on days when they are not teaching, such as planning days.
On Monday, more than 1,000 teachers marched on City Hall to protest the furloughs, which come on top of a wage freeze.
Though "there are a number of things that could happen," Mr. Coleman said the ideal solution would be help from the state legislature, which convenes in January.
"[The mayor] remains hopeful that there will be some help to Baltimore City so we can avoid the furloughs," he said. "Everything is fluid."