School double-bind

November 22, 1991

No one wants to see schools closed to make up for budget shortfalls, but Wednesday's announcement by the State Board of Education that local school systems can't balance their budgets by dropping below the minimum state mandate of 180 school days has the ring of a Catch-22: To beleaguered jurisdictions like Baltimore city, the state in effect is saying, "Sure, we're cutting $7.5 million in aid to your schools. But if you try to make up the difference by having fewer school days, we'll cut even more."

Earlier this year Mayor Schmoke said he would close schools for one week to save money. Theoretically that could take the city below the 180-day minimum. This week, however, the mayor's spokesman noted that Baltimore planned only to "furlough" teachers for five days -- presumably something that would not necessarily require closing schools. It appears the city increasingly will have to resort to this kind of bureaucratic double-talk in order to evade the threat of a total aid cutoff.

City officials hope the issue may yet be moot if the legislature comes up with emergency state aid for the city in January. But that won't solve Baltimore's basic dilemma, which is that Maryland law requires the city to provide a basic minimum standard of public education, while the Maryland legislature refuses to provide the money that would enable the city to meet that standard.

Ultimately the only way out of this bind may be for the city to call the state's bluff. In effect it could say, "We have no money to keep the schools open. If we close them, and you cut off our funds, we can't re-open them. So we're closing them. You re-open them -- and then, you run them. Good luck!"

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