FROM A leader whose policies indicated that he believes education is a fundamental service, one might have expected the message from Mayor Schmoke to be that we may have to make cuts and times may be hard, but our children and their futures will be protected.
Few people understand as well as Schmoke that Baltimore's schoolchildren should be the last ones to feel the sting of the budget crunch. It is incomprehensible why, instead, our kids are being placed at the front lines of this war of money.
Instead of placing a tall, impenetrable fence around the city schools and telling the budget cutters to keep out, Schmoke has invited in the enemy and, indeed, led the charge. He has himself issued the edict that says the schools will take a very hard hit from the state-imposed budget cuts -- a week's closing next month.
At a time when other elected city officials are saying they believe alternative budget cuts should be imposed first, the mayor has announced that schoolchildren will suffer the biggest and most visible wound.
A school system that spends at least $45,000 less per class than its neighboring jurisdictions should not be forced to slice its meager budget in the proportions ordered by the mayor. Every other avenue must be exhausted before we take away the very nourishment of our children's minds. But if the money must come from the education budget, it can be taken in a less costly fashion.
Of the $7 million estimated savings, $6.5 million will come from the pay cuts. Were alternatives considered such as cutting employees' pay during scheduled vacations? Much more is lost when the savings come through short-sighted school closings. It is a move that will destroy continuity of instruction in the school system that has the bulk of the state's most needy students.
Perhaps even more detrimental is the underlying message of such a move. It is a message that has the potential to dull the bright spots of concern and achievement that grow in schools and communities throughout the city.
Closing schools for a week tells our young people that we weren't serious when we said education is the key to their future and that we cared about Baltimore's dismal attendance and dropout rates.
Closing schools for a week only confirms the opinion of those parents who think Baltimore does not have the will to provide a steady and solid education.
Closing schools for a week tells college students who might consider teaching in city schools that, along with a lagging pay scale and working conditions far worse than other jurisdictions, they may be singled out to take full frontal attacks from budget-cutting axes. And it tells the teachers who work in city schools that their services are not as important as the ones provided by garbage collectors and other city employees who haven't taken as big a hit.
The answer is for the mayor to take a stand for schools, cancel the order to shut down in February and find the money somewhere else in the city's budget. If that does not happen, the school board, which sets the calendar for the school year, must use its power to save the threatened week. At the very least, the board must give the parents of city school children a clear message so that they may be prepared if schools really do shut down.
If it does happen, parents and other citizens must protest loudly. If no one will tell our mayor and our legislators that we want our money spent on our children, those small voices of kids will not be heard and their future and ours will not be provided for.
A slow, insidious slaughter of spirit is taking place in the "city that reads." Something is askew when a mayor who is commitment to bringing better education and futures to Baltimore's children close the schools for a week to save money.
Mindy S. Mintz is director of the Education Project at Advocates for Children and Youth.