Lessons for Schmoke and Amprey

December 26, 1992

Baltimore's form of government lends itself to heavy involvement by the mayor in the affairs of the Department of Education. The mayor, after all, appoints the school board and has the de facto power to hire and fire superintendents and sign off on major school decisions. William Donald Schaefer exercised that power several times, once even appointing a school board president (Norman Ramsey) with instructions to fire a superintendent (Roland N. Patterson).

It's a delicate position. The mayor cannot be too ham-handed, lest he be accused of "interfering with educational policy" or "undercutting the management" of the schools. But he also must watch to see that the education bureaucrats don't go running off half-cocked.

It is a political balancing act, one which Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did not perform adroitly when he effectively killed an ill-advised scheme from North Avenue to eliminate popular K-8 schools. Mr. Schmoke said he did not think it was "frivolous" to allow the plan to be publicized and then attacked vehemently by outraged parents and educators. But he knew ahead of time that the K-8 scheme would be a "land mine" and says he warned Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

Dr. Amprey apparently didn't hear the warning. He allowed his pencil-pushers and computer-punchers at North Avenue to put forward a plan based solely on space availability and program needs, not on the education achievement at the affected schools.

Granted that the cry of protest does constitute a kind of public hearing on the matter. But it isn't the thorough, rational hearing that Dr. Amprey and the mayor should have insisted on before the plan was released. In fact, there was almost no consultation with affected communities.

The plan does contain a number of major proposals that have been obscured in the controversy over K-8. For example, it eliminates all elementary schools with a capacity of less than 374 students. It redraws attendance lines, some of which were gerrymandered absurdly to achieve some desegregation 18 years ago. And the plan raises interesting public-policy questions that should be addressed when public hearings resume in January. What, for example, does this plan -- and the way it was fashioned -- say about Dr. Amprey's promises to move decision-making from his bureaucracy to the city's 177 schools?

Some damage was done by the way this plan was drawn up and released. The mayor and superintendent should have learned some lessons.

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