Schmoke's role in school policy comes to fore Dropping zone plan raises a question: Who's in charge?

December 21, 1992|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Staff Writer

It is a scenario Baltimore is painfully familiar with: The superintendent of schools takes a controversial position that angers an influential constituency and puts the credibility of the school administration on the line. Then he is publicly overruled by the mayor.

Once before, the issue was a private school curriculum parents wanted to implement at the Barclay School. The school superintendent was Richard Hunter, who was effectively toppled by the controversy.

This time the superintendent is Walter G. Amprey. The issue is rezoning the city's 177 schools and the recommendation to eliminate seven popular and mostly successful elementary-middle schools.

The plan to split the elementary-middle schools was effectively killed last week by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who said he wants the schools kept in place. He also urged that two other schools be converted to that structure.

Mr. Schmoke was quickly followed by the school board president, who said the recommendation to eliminate K-8 schools appears to be dead.

It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the decision will have on Mr. Amprey's role as superintendent. While clearly frustrated with the political nature of educational policy-making in Baltimore, Mr. Amprey has expressed "total support" for Mr. Schmoke's decision.

But already the public outrage stirred by the recommendation has once again turned a harsh spotlight on the management of the city's public school system. It also caused others to question the leadership Mr. Schmoke is providing on education.

"For [Mr. Schmoke] to undercut the management of the superintendent and the school board is one of the problems we have in terms of management," said Del. Howard P. "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore, who closely follows the city school system. "It doesn't allow the system to develop any [credibility] in the eyes of the public. . . . The same thing happened with Richard Hunter."

Before the rezoning plan was made public, school officials briefed Mr. Schmoke on its contents. And while he voiced reservations about the elimination of the so-called K-8 schools, he nonetheless urged school officials to move forward with the proposal.

"I don't think it was frivolous to put the plan out there," Mr. Schmoke said. "There are legitimate ideas about" which middle school model is best.

Asked why he stepped in and effectively killed the recommendation only days after allowing it to be put forward, the mayor said: "The superintendent is looking at this from the standpoint of education policy. I have to think of it from the broader viewpoint of the impact on communities."

Mr. Schmoke also said the process was working as intended. He said the school system's recommendation is a working document intended to be shaped by public input -- unlike Barclay, an instance in which the superintendent made a decision and Mr. Schmoke bowed to public pressure and reversed it.

"Perhaps that [analogy to Barclay] would make sense if education presented this as a final plan," Mr. Schmoke said. "We act as if people don't want to engage in discussion of controversial issues."

The middle school proposal indeed sparked more outrage than calm debate. Hundreds of people attended hearings last week, mostly to express their anger at the recommendation to eliminate K-8 schools.

The proposal prompted a strong reaction because many of the K-8 schools were established at the insistence of local communities over the objections of school system managers.

"Not only did the communities win the right to have these schools; their schools are working better overall," said Councilman Carl Stokes, D-2nd, chairman of the council's Education Committee. "The communities won twice -- by getting their programs and because their programs became successful. Now, the punishment is for the system to destroy the success the people are having. And that's absolutely crazy."

Council President Mary Pat Clarke said the rezoning proposal proves "once and for all that planning for a system from the top down is counterproductive and a waste of our efforts."

She and Mr. Stokes say the council is planning hearings for early next year in which community residents will have an opportunity to discuss what they would like to see in their schools.

Those findings will be presented to the school system, Mr. Stokes said, with the threat that funds for top-level administrators will be slashed if the ideas are ignored.

"[The superintendent] says everyone wants to run the schools," said Mr. Stokes, who engaged in a brief shouting match with Mr. Amprey in the wake of the rezoning controversy. "But I say, 'If you are not going to, we'll do what is necessary.' "

Mr. Schmoke says council members are overreacting. "I think they are dealing in gross exaggeration," he said.

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