City teachers unveiled a new tack yesterday in their battle with the mayor over a planned weeklong February furlough: They went directly to the public with a newspaper advertisement.
With a headline across the ad reading, "Education Isn't Important!" the Baltimore Teachers Union presented its stand against Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's plans to shut schools for a week next month to save $7.5 million as a result of the state government budget crisis.
"Is this the message we should be sending to our children?" the union asked below the banner in a half-page ad that appeared in The Sun yesterday.
"This is the first time we've gone directly to the parents through the media," Irene Dandridge, union president, said yesterday.
"We think it's an effective way to reach them."
The ad, which appeared for the first time yesterday, outlines the 8,500-member union's case against closing city schools for five days beginning Feb. 17. The unpaid furloughs are part of the mayor's cost-cutting plan for the city's education budget.
The cuts stem from the loss of $27.1 million in state aid to Baltimore.
The union is asking residents to call the mayor and plead with him to save money some other way.
"We believe that the mayor is doing the best he can," Ms. Dandridge said.
"But we don't believe this is the place to cut. There's no doubt the finances of the city are in real trouble. But there are alternatives. We've been fighting for those alternatives."
In recent weeks, city teachers have imposed work-to-rule action at schools, foregoing voluntary out-of-classroom duties; mounted letter-writing campaigns to lawmakers; and rallied at City Hall and the State House to protest education cuts.
The ad notes that teachers and other professionals agreed to defer $34 million in pay raises and have made other offers, such as an early retirement plan, to avoid closing schools. The ad notes cost-cutting plans that other communities have taken without hurting education.
"Closing schools in order to balance the budget creates a dangerous precedent. What will the mayor do next year if the same situation arises -- close the schools for two to three weeks?" the union asks in the ad.
The furloughs have put the city at odds with the Maryland Board of Education, which has said that local school districts may not violate the minimum 180-day school year requirement.
The city school board has sidestepped the furlough issue, declining to take any kind of official stand on the mayor's plan to close the city's schools for five days.
Board President Joseph L. Smith said yesterday that he hadn't seen the ad. "I have no comment at this point," he said.
School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey could not be reached for comment.
Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for Mr. Schmoke, said the mayor had no comment.
He said the mayor learned about the ad Saturday during a meeting with union leaders, the school board president and city and state educators to discuss several issues.
"He plans to have more to say tomorrow as a result of the meetings," Mr. Coleman said.
Ms. Dandridge said teachers and parents are worried that closing schools will hurt not only day-to-day learning but also student performance on writing proficiency tests, used to determine student placement and given at the end of February.
"Will anyone be surprised if the scores for Baltimore are lower than the rest of the state if teachers have lost a week of time to adequately prepare their students?" the union asked.
Union officials, Ms. Dandridge said, are hopeful the message will galvanize the public. The ad also contains the union's office number, which residents may call to offer support.
"We were getting so many calls from parents and others wanting to know what they can do to help," she said, explaining another of the reasons for the ad.
"We're getting calls from people who don't understand why we're fighting the furloughs."
Because nobody manned phones at the union's office yesterday, Ms. Dandridge had no idea what response the ad may have evoked. Union officials will staff the phone during the week.
"The only calls have been from the media so far," she said.
She said that she didn't know how much the ad cost but that the union has earmarked some money for public relations and may run another ad before the furloughs are set to occur.
"We will fight school closings all the way to that day," Ms. Dandridge said.
"What we're trying to do this time is encourage the mayor to really look at some other alternatives."