The state is asking Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke for a straight answer: Does the city really plan to close schools four days in February without making up the time later in the school year?
Since announcing last month that he planned to close schools and furlough employees to make up $7.5 million in lost state aid, Mr. Schmoke has avoided answering that question.
State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick tried to force the issue yesterday in handing an official request for a revised city public schools calendar to Baltimore's school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey.
The city has until Jan. 6 to submit the calendar, which must detail the number of days and hours students will be spending in school for the remainder of the academic year. Maryland law requires that schools receiving state funding be in session a minimum of 180 days -- and 1,080 hours -- each academic year.
"We're expecting compliance," Dr. Grasmick said yesterday. "If they don't comply, we're going to have to deal with that with the attorney general."
But yesterday it seemed unlikely that the state would get a clear answer. Dr. Amprey said that he would respond to Dr. Grasmick's letter "one way or another" but that he did not know if the city would comply with the state's request.
"I'm going to respond to it, and that's all I can tell you, because I don't know," he said. "I really don't. I haven't decided."
Dr. Amprey said he also did not know if he would discuss the letter with Mr. Schmoke, who declined to comment on the school closing earlier this week on the advice of the city solicitor.
"I don't know that it's necessary to discuss this letter with the mayor," Dr. Amprey said.
Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. met with the city solicitor earlier this month to discuss the city's plan to close schools. Mr. Curran said this week that the state would consider going to court if the city threatened to violate state requirements.
The state is not alone in thinking ahead to a legal challenge.
"Parents' groups have approached to ask if we would represent their interests to make sure their children get what every other child in the state gets -- which is 180 days of schooling," said Susan T. Leviton, president of the non-profit Advocates for Children and Youth. "Of course, we would hope that we wouldn't have to use the courts to enforce that right."
The State Board of Education said last month that it would deny requests for waivers of the 180-day provision from localities hit by budget cuts.
Baltimore, however, is moving ahead with plans for an "Independent Study Week" for students starting Feb. 18.
All 11,300 school employees will be furloughed Feb. 17 -- when schools would have been closed anyway for observance of Presidents Day -- and for the four following days, which would normally be teaching days. The furloughs would save about $7.1 million in salaries.
Scheduling furloughs during four days that children would normally be in school saves the city another $460,000 in heating and transportation costs.
In refusing to say whether the city plans to make up the lost time later in the school year, city and school officials have said they don't need to address that issue until the end of the school year.
The state and Ms. Leviton disagree.
"One of the real concerns that I have is the game-playing," Ms. Leviton said. "What's really distressing about that is families have to make plans."
Both sides hope the issue will become moot once the General Assembly opens its session Jan. 8 and considers raising more money to offset the budget crisis.
Dr. Amprey said he does not expect the school board to vote on the issue, although deciding to close schools "normally" would be a decision of the board. The board sets the school calendar, which is submitted to the state in late summer or early fall of each year.
At the board's regular meeting Thursday night, a representative from Advocates for Children and Youth urged that the members vote on the issue or set a date for voting. But the board president, Joseph L. Smith, refused.
Mr. Smith said that the board is appointed by the mayor, and that it would be "phony" on his part to call for a vote. The present board's terms expire at the end of this month, but members can continue to serve for as long as 120 days until the mayor selects successors.
"My question is, why even meet?" Ms. Leviton said of the board. "Certainly if you're going to do something like this, do it following procedures."
The state is also asking Anne Arundel County to submit a revised calendar, but only for "informational purposes," Dr. Grasmick said.
The state expects all localities with revised calendars to submit them, she said.
Anne Arundel County was the only other locality than Baltimore to explore the possibility of a state waiver from the 180-day minimum.
Anne Arundel extended the Christmas vacation by two days, but will make up the time in June -- thus saving on heating costs -- and plans to furlough employees on non-teaching professional days normally set aside for paperwork and conferences.