Baltimore school board defends touchy rezoning plan

December 11, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this article.

The controversial school rezoning plan issued in Baltimor this week was prepared by staffers with the 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.' "

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

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

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.

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

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was out of town yesterday and could not be reached for comment, according his press secretary. But board members said that they fully expected the political firestorm generated by the plan.

They said that staffers working for Dr. Walter G. Amprey drafted the plan under guidelines set by the board itself, and said the board was fully consulted throughout the process.

The staff was ordered to come up with a plan that would:

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

* Minimize the distance children have to travel to school.

* Minimize the number of children who would have to change schools because of rezoning.

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

* Maximize the number of students in school that "reflect the multicultural population of the city."

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

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

But board members said that 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 scheduled to begin next week.

"For the 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 John S. Ward, a board member. "We encouraged the staff to think freely and to come up with proposals that are creative."

Redmond C. S. Finney, another board member and former headmaster of the private Gilman School, said parents should remain open-minded on the plan to break up K-8 schools.

"I believe that the middle school level deserves special attention of people who want to be there," he said. "You can deliver the needs in a K-8 model; you also can deliver them in the middle school."

There is a movement nationally toward separate middle schools, backed by those who believe that students can be better served by educators who specialize in that age group, said James McPartland, co-director of the Center for Social Organization of Schools, at Hopkins.

And he said that Baltimore is seen as a leader in the middle school movement, saying the city has several outstanding middle schools, including Calverton, West Baltimore, Fallstaff, Northeast, Chinquapin and Canton.

In the end, the debate over grade groupings is likely to be more political than educational, he said.

But he also warned that school officials should pay attention to parental complaints, noting that parent involvement is a key part a school's success.

"The school system shouldn't ignore that," he said. "That could be something that could potentially be lost."

The public will have plenty of opportunity to criticize the plan and try to sway the board prior to an expected vote on the final plan in April, Dr. Farfel said.

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

"If anyone things that this board is a rubber stamp for a recommended report, that's an incorrect perception," he said. "We're fully prepared to make tough decisions."

PROPOSED CLOSINGS

The following schools would be closed under the proposed school rezoning plan:

Harbor View #304

Lois T. Murray #313

Sharp-Leadenhall #314

Dr. Lillie M. Jackson #315

Duke Ellington #117

Malcolm X #38

Carter Godwin Woodson #160

Luther C. Mitchell #135

Pimlico Middle #222

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