Schmoke facing challenge tonight on school reform

July 20, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Frustrated by the pace and direction of school reform, an influential community group plans to confront Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke with its concerns at a public meeting tonight.

The meeting illustrates an apparent rift between the mayor and Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), ffTC church-based group that has given Mr. Schmoke strong support in the past.

"We are concerned about some of the direction and lack of direction, or slowness of direction, that we've been noticing," said Arnie Graf, a staff member of the Industrial Areas Foundation, BUILD's parent group.

In particular, BUILD is disappointed by what it sees as the school system's lack of progress in giving local schools more control over their operations. The group also objects to the city's plans to turn nine schools over to a private, for-profit Minnesota company, starting this September. That contract still awaits final approval from the city's Board of Estimates.

And members are miffed by lack of advance notice from the mayor about plans to go forward with the contract and about his intention to join a lawsuit over school funding, which is being prepared by the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union.

The mayor is likely to come in for some sharp questioning tonight about his relationship with the group, and whether he is distancing himself from BUILD, said officials from the group.

"There is concern on our part, because of some of the moves that have been made in areas where we have been working together, where the mayor has not really consulted with us," said the Rev. Robert R. Behnke, pastor of Nazareth Lutheran Church in Highlandtown, co-chair of BUILD.

But he and other representatives stopped short of saying that there is a serious breach at this point.

"We have had a good relationship with the mayor, and we're ready to continue that relationship -- but we're not exactly clear where he's at," said Mr. Behnke.

Mr. Graf said that while the group feels a certain amount of frustration, "I don't know that it's a break with the mayor. It's always been an independent relationship."

Mr. Graf said that in recent years, the mayor has worked hard to back BUILD's agenda on education, housing and youth initiatives. And he has supported such initiatives as the College Bound Foundation, Nehemiah Housing and the Baltimore Commonwealth.

Delores Moore, a co-chair of BUILD, said that the mayor "has been supportive of our agenda, but there have been a number of things that cause us concern." Tonight's meeting will give Mr. Schmoke a chance to explain his positions publicly, she said.

The mayor is scheduled to hold a separate meeting with some BUILD representatives in his office this morning, said Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman.

Mr. Coleman said that the mayor is "very pleased" with the pace of school reform set by Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and the current school board. The mayor also supports the school privatization project, he said.

Tonight the mayor can expect to hear several additional proposals.

"We are presenting him the beginnings of a second agenda, which we want to ask him publicly if he'll support," said Mr. Graf.

At the meeting, BUILD plans to:

* Call for a moratorium on turning over any other public schools to profit-making companies.

Members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance have complained that the city failed to consult with them before announcing plans to put a private contractor in charge of nine public schools.

* Ask that 25 schools be given authority over their own operations by September 1993, a proposal laid out in a private consultant's report issued last month. Those schools should include the 14 currently participating in a similar pilot program, the group says.

* Begin auditing schools on its own to see if there are shortages of books and other basic supplies. BUILD also plans to demand that the school system end those shortages within 10 days of being told about them.

* Ask that the mayor set up a committee to monitor state aid to the local schools, as a way of justifying how that money is spent to skeptical state legislators. The committee would include representatives from the school system, BUILD, the mayor's office, the business community and parent groups.

In addition, BUILD will ask that the mayor expand two community-policing experiments. Those projects rely on officers who are based at BUILD-member churches and work closely with the neighborhood on crime and safety issues.

Both police projects have been successful and should be expanded to four or five more sites within six months, said Mr. Graf.

"We don't perceive this as a break," he said of the group's decision to confront the mayor publicly with these proposals. "We perceive this as what we've done with him over the years." But he warned that "if he turns us down on all these things, then obviously we have a problem."

Meanwhile, the school proposals drew a mixed response from Dr. Amprey.

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