Leaner schools yet to shake pudgy image Critics still point to low test scores

January 17, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Baltimore's gas-guzzler of a school system now claims a lean new look.

Much of the bloat has been removed from the school bureaucracy, making it swifter and smarter, Baltimore officials say.

But many lawmakers in Annapolis see the same old jalopy; it may beless top-heavy, but it still fails most performance tests, they say.

Consequently, the city faces an uphill battle for increased school aid this year, in a General Assembly said to be tired of investing in failure.

"The perception is that the [Baltimore] schools are in terrible shape," says Del. Timothy F. Maloney, head of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education funding.

"I don't think there's a member of the General Assembly, outside of Baltimore City, who would willingly send their own children to the Baltimore City school system," says the Prince George's County Democrat.

Despite a continuing shake-up in the central administration, and progress at individual schools, the perception of a sluggish bureaucracy remains strong and entrenched, concedes Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

"That becomes an excuse . . . not to give the additional funding for city schools," says Dr. Amprey. Though the system has problems, "everyone knows that the funding still isn't appropriate."

To remedy that, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is proposing legislation this year that would increase state aid to Maryland's poorest school districts. The mayor also has said he plans to sue the state over inequitable school funding.

Mr. Schmoke insists that some lawmakers have an outdated image of the city schools.

"The central office has been downsized," he says. "A lot of legislators who complain . . . don't know that."

The mayor's legislative proposal would squeeze more money out of APEX, or "Action Plan for Educational Excellence," the main state school-aid program.

If approved, a change in the APEX funding formula could pump several hundred million dollars more into the coffers of the state's poorest school districts each year.

APEX accounted for $263.6 million in state aid to the city schools this year, out of a total school budget of about $587 million. Other programs brought the total of state aid to $316.9 million.

But the mayor's APEX proposal "has no chance of passing," concedes one city legislator. At best, he says, the city can hope to beat back attempts to cut aid already mandated by state law.

Few legislators see much chance of the General Assembly reneging on its commitment to APEX.

"They had their best chance to do it last year as a substitute for raising taxes, and they couldn't do it then," says Sen. John A. Pica, a Democrat who heads the city's Senate delegation.

But he says the city will have to fight to keep what it has. "There's not much to achieve in the way of greater funds for Baltimore this year," he says. "There's not much money for anything this year."

Meanwhile, other key legislators promise to put city school officials on the hot seat because of continued poor results in Baltimore classrooms. These critics argue that cuts in the school bureaucracy cannot camouflage the system's continued failure to educate its pupils.

"There's a general frustration among those of us who have fought for and voted for education funding," says Del. Henry B. Heller, D-Montgomery, who heads the education panel of the House Ways and Means Committee.

"We feel the money's not getting to the children."

Lawmakers say the number of bureaucrats is less important than Baltimore's low test scores, attendance rates and other evidence of failure.

Last year, for example, Baltimore ranked dead last in the state's annual "report card" on Maryland's school districts, meeting the grade in only two of 13 categories measured by the state.

Tops in dropouts, absences

The city posted the state's highest yearly dropout rate, 16.4 percent, more than three times the Maryland average, and it had the state's highest absentee rates. And city elementary and middle school students scored near the bottom third nationally on standardized reading, language and mathematics tests.

"When kids aren't performing, it brings into question whether there is adequate leadership, or effective leadership," says Del. Gene W. Counihan, D-Montgomery, a member of the House Ways and Means Committee. "You get those questions because of the level of performance."

The city has to show results if it expects to win respect from the legislature, says Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the city Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

"Most of my colleagues just look at the numbers, in terms of academic achievement, dropouts, teen pregnancy," he says. "Those numbers are dismal in respect to the rest of the state, including some of the poorer subdivisions."

Commitment questioned

Many legislators question the city's commitment to education, says Sen. Laurence Levitan, the Montgomery County Democrat who chairs the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

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