Destructive City School Plan

December 13, 1992

School boards and educators keep changing, but th Baltimore City public school system seems to operate on the principle that "if it ain't broke, break it." Little else could explain the mindlessly self-destructive way in which the struggling school system is proposing to implement its first comprehensive rezoning since 1974.

Few changes have the explosive emotional and political potential of school boundary changes. Lives and routines are interrupted, educational processes are altered. That is one of the reasons such rezonings are attempted so infrequently.

In the nearly two decades since the last comprehensive school rezoning was done in Baltimore-- on the orders of federal desegregation monitors -- the city's school system has changed beyond recognition. Enrollment has dropped by 50,000 to about 113,000 and is expected to continue declining. The number of white students also keeps diminishing. The system is now 82 percent African American.

In ordering a comprehensive rezoning that would usher the system into a new millennium, the city school board -- in the words of its president, Dr. Phillip H. Farfel -- told the staff, "Put together the best possible plan to educate children."

After nearly two years of work, the school system's planning staff has proposed changes in the boundaries of 57 of its 177 schools. Eight elementary schools and one middle school are to be closed; popular pre-kindergarten-through-eight-grade arrangements now in place in seven schools are to be eliminated.

This upheaval is expected to save the school system a paltry $1.7 million in annual operating costs, in addition to a $5.7 million one-time saving on repairs. From bureaucrats' point of view all of this works. Middle schools with a capacity of up to 2,400 students and high schools with an attendance rate of 900-1,200 would give the system the best possible operational flexibilities and economies, they argue. But what about facilitating the best educational achievement?

It may sound incredible but the school system's planning team chose to ignore that mandate altogether. Norman J. Walsh, head of the rezoning effort, acknowledged as much Thursday night by telling the school board that his proposal was based solely on space availability and projected programmatic needs and had not taken into consideration the achievement levels or academic success of the schools to be rejuggled.

The staff's rezoning proposal shows utter contempt toward the complex education and upbringing needs of Baltimore's children. That the school board would submit such a fundamentally flawed plan for public consideration is mind-boggling.

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