A FEW weeks ago I came home to Baltimore for my annual winter break from the University of Maryland College Park. I got an ugly shock.
I flipped on the local news and watched city school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey plead for an end to the financial cuts bleeding his school system. "We've cut to the bone," he said. "There is no more fat."
Dr. Amprey told of Baltimore schools lacking the most basic resources, yet bracing for further cutbacks.
Suddenly the protests over budget cuts at College Park, which I had covered last November for the campus newspaper, no longer had the same weight. When students at the state's flagship campus can no longer obtain classes needed for graduation, there is cause for grumbling. But the College Park crisis hardly seems as devastating.
According to recent reports, Baltimore City spends about $1,400 less per student than Baltimore County. And the system's fragile financial situation is only expected to deteriorate, because additional rounds of budget cuts presumably will strike in the spring and again in 1993.
Warnings emerge regularly from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who recently told the local press, "I wish I could say there was some light at the end of this tunnel of fiscal hard times. But I don't see it."
The mayor's announcement that he will no longer shut down the schools for a week this month was heartening. But it doesn't change the stark reality.
City educators are crying for immediate help. Any more cuts would be brutal.
Teachers tell stories of having to barter with neighboring schools for vital textbooks, of lacking basic programs such as art and music, of having to spend up to $350 a year of their own funds for such basic supplies as paper and of being forced to teach in overcrowded classrooms while doling out small clumps of toilet paper.
After getting a ground-level look at the problems Baltimore City youngsters face, I felt a bit uneasy about the demonstrations at College Park. At my institution, well-hyped protests over the nearly $40 million cut over two years gripped the media's attention. The grandstanding culminated when 12 protesters decided to sit down on Route 1 and get arrested -- all for the benefit of TV cameras.
Of course, nobody wants to see college students strapped into taking an extra semester because courses aren't available, or forced to transfer because their majors are on the chopping block, but I'd be glad to suffer such trouble if it meant my Baltimore brother might get a shot at a decent education.
The Baltimore City school system is at a low point.Subsequently, so is the future of Baltimore. In the past, Mayor Schmoke has frequently said public education is the key to saving the nation's cities. At the same time, Mr. Schmoke, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and other elected officials keep pointing out that their hands are tied by a continuing recession.
But are they letting us in on the whole story? Is the state of Maryland really so destitute that it can't afford to educate its kids? I wonder.
Even as city school children continue to bear the brunt of cutbacks, a new baseball palace will open at Camden Yards in early April, a showcase built for a private owner, a showcase that has consumed $100 million in state lottery proceeds.
And in the last couple of weeks, after the devastating storm that wiped out most of the $44 million sand barrier at Ocean City, state leaders want to pour millions of dollars into another dune project to protect condominiums of the rich. When a University of Maryland expert on beach erosion expressed doubts the other day, he was publicly upbraided by the governor.
As the baseball palace opens, the Baltimore City school kids won't be the only ones suffering. Twenty-five percent of Baltimoreans live below the poverty line; 40,000 wait on a list for public housing.
There are resources. And the "City That Reads" should be able to locate them in order to preserve the future of a struggling underclass.
If a college student home on Christmas holiday can see what needs to be done to repair our crumbling education system, why can't our elected officials see it?
Jason Grant is a reporter for the Diamondback, campus newspaper at the University of Maryland College Park.