Baltimore still plans to shut schools the week of Feb. 17 to save money, but it will send youngsters home with packets of study materials to keep them busy, the city school superintendent says.
"We're moving ahead with it," Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said of the shutdown and unpaid furlough for all school workers, which could put the city at odds with the Maryland Board of Education and its 180-day school year requirement.
The city's action would save an estimated $7.5 million.
However, Amprey added that "we're making plans to maximize positive experiences for kids while they are out of school."
In layman's terms, that means creating packets of educational material for students to take home while school's out.
In fact, the school department has even given the shutdown a name: "Independent Study Week."
Amprey said the take-home packets, being prepared by principals, will be designed so students can use them alone if parents are not available or able to help.
"One of the things the school system has to do is be very realistic about what constitutes a parent" in Baltimore City, he said.
The state school board is on record as saying that local school districts may not violate the state's requirement for a minimum of school days in a year.
Two weeks ago, Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick sent Amprey a letter requesting a revised calendar for the rest of the school year, citing the intended February shutdown. She gave him until Jan. 6 to reply.
But Amprey informed Grasmick in writing yesterday that he can't provide the revised calendar now.
Amprey declined to release a copy of the letter and said city lawyers have advised him not to get into a detailed discussion of the closing plan. He said the city's budget is so uncertain that things are "too much up in the air to be able to give her an answer."
Amprey noted that the city is expecting to lose some $13 million more in state aid in the current fiscal year, on top of the $27.1 million in state aid cuts that led to the proposed furlough and other school budget reductions.
"I don't know what our portion of the $13 million is going to be," he said. "The mayor did say to me that there is a possibility that we'll have to absorb some more."
State education officials had not seen Amprey's letter as of yesterday afternoon, said Bonnie S. Copeland, deputy state superintendent.
Told that Amprey would not provide a revised calendar as requested, Copeland said the state has no intention of backing off its requirement for a 180-day school year.
"We'd have to wait and see if there's a violation," said Copeland. "We're certainly going to continue to monitor this."
The Schmoke administration argues that the emergency closure legally justified.
Unionized school principals and administrators support the move a last resort. But the Baltimore Teachers Union has mounted a work-to-rule job action in protest and has raised the possibility of legal action to forestall the closure.
The city school board, meanwhile, has refused to take a stand on the plan, which members insist was not of their making.
Regina Franco, a coordinator with the Parents Coalition to Improve City Schools, a group opposing the shutdown, said she was not happy with Amprey's response.
"I think we all have to just say we won't accept it," she said.
Franco said she doubts that home-study packets can make up for the loss of four regular school days during the week of Feb. 17, which starts with the President's Day holiday.
"If that happens, I feel like the schools are really failing us," said Franco of the shutdown. "I can't believe it's going to happen."
Meanwhile, surrounding counties are wrestling with the possibility of unpaid school furloughs as a way to deal with state aid cutbacks.
In Anne Arundel County, the county executive has proposed a four-day, unpaid furlough for school workers. The county's school board has agreed to wait until the General Assembly session ends in April to see if the furlough is necessary.
And school officials in Carroll County have been asked by the county commission to consider unpaid furloughs for school workers to save money there.