City school board sidesteps vote on week's closing Stand meaningless without funds, says board president.

December 20, 1991|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

Regina Franco, mother of a Baltimore elementary school student, was spitting mad.

The city school board last night avoided taking a stand against Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plan to shut schools for a week to save $7.5 million.

Board President Joseph L. Smith said that he would not put the issue to a vote because politicians, not board members, control the purse strings.

But Franco wasn't buying it.

"I'm a little tired of holding the children hostage," she told the board. "I'm a little tired of being held hostage."

Every day, Franco said, "I tell my son, 'No, sweetheart, you can't stay home from school.' "

Now, the city is planning to shut down all 180 schools the week of Feb. 17 because it says it can't find the money to keep them open, she said. "What kind of message are we sending to the kids?" Franco asked.

"We urge you, we plead for you all to ask Mayor Schmoke to find the money somewhere."

In another discussion of school funding, the board learned that fewer Baltimore schools are likely to receive money from the federal government under its Chapter I program because eligibility requirements will be tightened next spring.

The plan for the five-day, unpaid furlough ordered by the mayor last month ispart of the city's response to a $27.1 million cut in state aid.

The plan puts Baltimore on a collision course with the state Board of Education, which last month said that local school districts may not save money by ignoring the mandatory 180-day school year.

And city school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said the state school board wouldn't even know whether Baltimore had failed to meet the 180-day mandate until school is over and the days are counted.

The Schmoke administration has raised various legal arguments to justify the emergency shutdown. The school system's unionized principals and administrators are supporting the furlough, as a last resort.

But the plan has sparked a work slowdown and the threat of legal action by the Baltimore Teachers Union, along with widespread opposition from parents.

Last night, five speakers pressured the board to take an official stand against the plan, to no avail.

Leading the charge was City Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, the new chairman of the council's education committee, who urged the board to hold local politicians accountable for the plan.

"Give it back to the elected officials, give it back to me, give it back to the mayor -- don't let us off the hook," said Stokes. "Let us find the resources to take care of our children."

Bailey Fine, a parent and former president of the city school board, warned against using school children as pawns in the battle for more money from state legislators.

"When they had the money, they didn't give it to us," she said. "I don't see them coming forth with money because you close the schools for five days."

Mindy Mintz, from Advocates for Children and Youth Inc., urged opposition to the plan. "We need to see some action from this board," said Mintz. "Our priorities are skewed when we tell the kids they can stay home for a week."

But the board president rejected those calls. Smith told opponents that any such vote would be "superficial and phony," since the board has no power to raise money on its own.

In the bad news on federal funding, the board was told that dozens of schools may lose money from an important program that serves impoverished schools where a large number of students perform below their grade levels.

Known as Chapter I, the program provides teacher aides, tutors and classroom materials to compensate for poverty and poor academic performance.

Currently, schools may get Chapter I funds if 25 percent of the student body is poor enough to qualify for subsidized meals.

But starting in the 1992-93 school year, the threshold will be higher. Schools will qualify only if the proportion of eligible students is the same or greater than the proportion of those eligible in the city as a whole. Currently, about 54 percent of Baltimore students are poor enough to receive subsidized meals.

An estimated 33 public schools are expected to lose Chapter I funding after April 30, according to Mary R. Nicholsonne, assistant superintendent for compensatory education.

She also estimated that the number of eligible students in parochial and private schools may drop by 50 percent.

In addition, 10 public schools are expected to lose Chapter I pre-kindergarten programs.

School officials said they will do everything they can to find other money to keep the pre-kindergarten programs going, however.

In other developments yesterday, the Baltimore superintendent assured middle-school principals of his support, in the wake of recent fights and disturbances at middle schools around the city.

Amprey and the principals met to discuss ways of beefing up security and stemming the recent wave of violence.

He also named Henrietta Hestick, a clinical psychologist, to head a group of social workers, counselors and others who will work with students and their parents.

Hestick currently is in private practice and working full time at the Charles H. Hickey School for juvenile offenders.

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