School board defends politically unsettling rezoning proposal

December 11, 1992|By Mark Bomster and Michael A. Fletcher | Mark Bomster and Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writers

The controversial school rezoning plan issued in Baltimor this week was prepared by staffers with the mayor's and school board's knowledge that it was bound to ignite a firestorm of criticism.

"We did not ask the staff to consider political factors," Dr. Phillip H. Farfel, president of the board, said yesterday. "We said, 'Put together the best possible plan to educate children.' "

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke offered similar advice, school officials said.

"He was briefed on it," Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said of the mayor. "And as we presented the plan, he could see the land mines. But he was very clear in saying that we should take care of the education piece and let the process and the politicians take care of the political piece."

The result of the nearly two-year rezoning effort is a proposal to eliminate the popular pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade arrangement now in place at seven schools. If implemented, the plan would affect the high-profile and politically connected Barclay and Roland Park elementary-middle schools.

The plan also proposes closing eight elementary schools and one middle school, and changes in the boundaries of 57 of its 178 schools.

School officials emphasized the plan is still in its preliminary stages.

"This is a proposal, it is a first step -- it is not a done deal, and this board is not a rubber stamp," Dr. Farfel said at a special board meeting held last night to discuss the plan.

Dr. Amprey acknowledged that the plan now must be shaped to fit the realities of the city.

"We all know that this is not a perfect world," he said. "Now it istime to apply the recommendations to Baltimore."

A decrease in enrollment made the rezoning plan necessary as some schools became overcrowded and others were left with empty space. Enrollment has dropped by 50,000 students since the mid-1970s, the last time the system was rezoned.

Parents at several schools already have vowed to fight the proposal, which, among other things, would convert all schools to traditional elementary, middle or high schools.

Robert L. Wilson, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said parents are concerned about the breakup of the K-8 (( schools.

"That's going to be a problem," he said. "A number of parents and communities like the idea that they have an elementary-middle school. If space in that area will allow that, I believe they should remain."

City Council President Mary Pat Clarke also opposes breaking ++ up the K-8 schools.

"This is a presentation by some technocrats. I think the school board and the public recognize that," she said. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Mr. Schmoke was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment. But board members said they fully expect political fallout.

In developing the plan, the board ordered the staff to come up with recommendations that would:

* Make sure schools are safe, healthy and have adequate space for their programs.

* Minimize the distance children have to travel to school.

* Make as few students as possible change schools under rezoning.

* Maximize the number of pupils who attend an elementary, middle and high school in the same zone.

* Put as many students as possible in schools reflecting the city's racial make-up.

The board itself played a powerful role in shaping the proposal, said City Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, who quit an advisory committee on rezoning out of frustration.

Mr. Stokes said the rezoning committee would make suggestions to the school board's planning staff, only to be rebuffed.

"They kept coming back to us saying, 'We hear what you're saying and we talked to the board and they said this is what they want,' " Mr. Stokes said. "I don't know whose plan it is, but I get the sense it is the board's plan. It was the board's decision to allow no flexibility on K-8."

He also questioned the political wisdom of proposing a plan that antagonizes several of the city's powerful neighborhoods, saying school officials "have set themselves up for a fight that is unnecessary."

But board members said they wanted to shelter the staff from political pressure, saying parents and others will have a chance to criticize and shape the plan at a series of community meetings next week. A final board vote is expected in April.

"For staff to say, 'We're not coming forth with the best proposal because council person from 'X' district is going to oppose it,' would be extremely harmful and would fall short of its responsibilities," said board member John Ward. "We encouraged the staff to think freely and to come up with [creative] proposals."

He admitted the plan "could be divisive, there's no question about that. The politicians then must bear the burden, if it becomes a divisive issue. Equally, the board."

The public will have plenty of opportunity to criticize the plan and try to way the board prior to the April vote, Dr. Farfel said.

But he warned that, ultimately, the board will do what it thinks best.

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