City rezoning raises more questions than it answers

Jerry Baum

January 11, 1993|By Jerry Baum

AFTER a debut bathed in controversy, the rezoning plan for Baltimore city schools goes to formal public hearings this week.

The plan has been attacked for its recommendation that K-8 schools be eliminated, and there is understandable fear in some communities over the proposed changes in school boundaries.

But these are only two elements of a complicated plan. Other recommendations, virtually undiscussed in the media, raise key policy questions and need to be fully aired.

For example, Superintendent Walter Amprey and the school board have made a strong commitment to "school-based management" and to restructuring the central administration from a directive body to one that supports schools. They have given schools and their principals budgetary authority and considerable discretion over their own affairs.

Yet this plan reverses course and reflects a highly centralized administration. It would wipe out the present grade structure, for example, and group schools in three categories: K-5, 6-8 and 9-12. Students would attend schools in their new attendance zones, with parents and students given no options on choosing the school thought best for the student.

This plan is the product of the central administration, with local school communities given no opportunity to participate in its development. What does this suggest about the superintendent's and board's true intentions on decentralization of management?

The plan also would eliminate all elementary schools with a capacity of less that 374 students. It takes the position that to equip schools properly and to meet state standards for libraries, computer laboratories, special purpose rooms and cafeterias is a costly investment that is uneconomical for small schools.

But should we be strictly counting and measuring equipment and rooms when we decide to eliminate small schools? Rather, shouldn't we be asking if there is evidence that kids attending small schools are getting an inferior education? If small schools are pedagogically sound, may we not wish to compromise on our ideal for school facilities in order to have cost-efficient schools that actually work?

This plan carries with it a capital investment of $280 million. Leaving aside the city's ability to raise that kind of money, does this plan represent the wisest use of this vast sum? Where will the money go? The plan's reasonable goal is for all schools to have the facilities to ensure a sound education for every student. This means upgrading the mechanical and electrical plants and equipping all schools with computer labs, art rooms, music rooms and 5,650-square-foot libraries (to meet state standards).

The plan also calls for space for full-day kindergartens throughout the city, which means we would have to increase capacity by 8,800 students. Have we examined the operating costs to staff the programs that will use these rooms, and do we know how we'll raise the money?

To implement something like this, we need broad community input. We need the thoughts and wisdom of parents and citizens, and we need strong support for any significant new spending. The plan is on a fast track because any schools to be closed in 1993 must, according to state regulations, be approved by the Board of School Commissioners in April 1993.

To make this timetable, I recommend that the board detach the school-closing recommendations and boundary changes from the balance of the plan and consider these alone this spring. The rest of the plan can be considered after rezoning is completed.

As a part of the process, the board needs to establish a clear rationale for its position on each question. It should then seek to inform parents and communities fully about its plans and seek thorough public advice.

One final thought. Both board President Phillip Farfel and Mayor Kurt Schmoke have spoken against that part of the plan that would eliminate the city's seven elementary-secondary schools. The board should act immediately to scrap that proposal and allow those schools to invest their energies in improving their programs -- free of the uncertainty now hanging over them.

Jerry Baum heads the Fund for Educational Excellence, a nonprofit citizens' group dedicated to improving Baltimore's public schools.

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