If Baltimore goes ahead with its plan to reduce children's time in public schools by four days in February as a cost-cutting measure, it will be taking the last resort first -- and saving only $460,000.
That's how much the city will save in heating and transportation costs for those four days. The rest of the $7.5 million saving will be realized by five-day furloughs of 11,300 school employees -- including the superintendent.
And in deciding to offset $7.5 million in lost state funding by closing classrooms four days and furloughing school employees for those days and one other, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke passed up other penny-pinching alternatives that would have left children's class time untouched.
Angry parents and other critics of the proposed school closing -- during the week of Feb. 17 -- are questioning why employees could not be furloughed on days that children would not be in school anyway.
With the exception of President's Day, which will be an unpaid holiday as part of the furlough plan, school employees will continue to be paid for all remaining holidays, as well as a total of three days set aside for staff development and administrative duties.
Thus, critics say the mayor is using children to send a message to the legislature, which convenes Jan. 8 and must consider ways of dealing with the state's budget crisis.
"Children should not be made political footballs, and that's what they've become in this issue," said Susan T. Leviton, president of Advocates for Children and Youth.
"The way I feel about it is that it's wrong," says Regina Franco, parent of a first-grader at Garrett Heights Elementary in Hamilton and an organizer of a rally Tuesday at City Hall protesting the closings. About 60 people attended.
"It gives kids and parents and teachers a very bad message," she said. "It tells us that we're expendable. It tells us that education is expendable."
The move also puts Baltimore on a collision course with the state.
The State Board of Education mandates a minimum 180 days of instruction in a school year, and has said it will not waive that requirement to help localities balance their budgets.
If Baltimore closes schools, the state will consider going to court if necessary to make sure the city plans to make up that time later in the school year, said Attorney General J. Joseph Curran ++ Jr.
School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said the mayor made the correct decision in proposing the school closing. He said other cost-cutting alternatives, which included program cuts, would have also hurt children -- though indirectly.
"We're just getting picked apart," he said, referring to cuts in state money on which the school system and city government rely. "So it's better for us to bite the bullet."
The superintendent also noted that with more state budget cuts looming, debate over whether to close schools instead of other options may become moot.
Mr. Schmoke declined this week to comment on his decision, which was announced last month.
"I can't talk about this anymore," Mr. Schmoke said. "My attorneys have advised me not to talk. . . . It's pretty clear that the state attorney general and his assistants are looking at this whole situation as a potential legal case."
City Council President Mary Pat Clarke was surprised to hear that the city would move forward with its plans to close schools despite warnings from the state.
"Clearly, the theory is to emphasize the very real negative effects of the state cuts and the legislature's failure to act yet on behalf of Maryland's children," Ms. Clarke said.
School officials argue that closing schools is a legitimate response to the budget crisis. Dr. Amprey says alternatives that were rejected, such as having students pay more to ride city buses to school, would have hurt school attendance for the rest of the school year.
But privately and publicly, some officials acknowledge that the city can't afford to have the legislature think the cuts can just be absorbed by a school system that is already poorer than most.
"Sure, it's partly politics," says Sheila Z. Kolman, principal of West Baltimore Middle School and president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association. "Unfortunately, we have to use our children."
PSASA has supported the mayor's decision, in part because the union's membership feels that everybody with a stake in schools -- parents and children included -- should share the burden of cuts.
Bailey Fine, a parent and former city school board president, doesn't see it that way. Ms. Fine faults the mayor for not protecting education from the state cuts.
"I don't think you could find a person on the street who wouldn't be willing to give up a trash delivery once a week to keep its schools open," she said.
She also faults the mayor for considering closing schools an option.