School rezoning is revised Board backs out of private meeting with Schmoke

February 07, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Responding to massive public opposition, the Baltimore school board will conduct a special meeting Tuesday night to receive a revised school rezoning plan from the administration.

Tuesday's public meeting was announced yesterday morning shortly after six of eight school board members aborted what was to have been a nonpublic meeting with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke at 7:30 a.m.

Rezoning -- hotly debated throughout the city since mid-December -- was to have been among the topics talked about yesterday, said Clinton R. Coleman, spokesman for Mr. Schmoke, although the specifics were unclear.

Board members, whom the mayor had invited to City Hall yesterday, talked among themselves and then declined to go into the nonpublic session after assertions by a Sun reporter that under the state's Open Meetings Law such discussions should be public.

The state's open meetings law says that "except for special and appropriate circumstances" public business must be conducted "in an open and public manner," with citizens allowed to observe the decision-making process of public officials.

"I support the mayor totally, but I think [refusing to meet] is a position we need to take as a board, because it is not our position to exclude the public," said Rosalind D. Wilson, a board member.

Members need to be concerned about the public's perception of the rezoning process, said Kathleen T. Shapiro, another board member. "We have to let the public know that we are in tune with them, and we are their representatives."

Board member Redmond C. S. Finney said that while "we don't want to offend the mayor . . . the worst thing we can do is give the public the message that we're meeting outside of the law."

After the board members left City Hall, not having seen the mayor, Mr.Schmoke met privately with school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, several top school administrators and the board's president and vice president.

The mayor's spokesman later disputed claims that the full meeting should have been open to the public -- and news media as representatives of the public. He said board members apparently were confused by a reporter's citation of the state's open meetings law.

The mayor simply invited school board members to City Hall, said Mr. Coleman, with no votes or other official school board business contemplated for the meeting. The session, he said, would have been no different from any number of private meetings the mayor holds each week with members of the community, which are closed to the public and news media.

"This was not a 'school board meeting.' This was a meeting called by the mayor with members of the school board," Mr. Coleman said.

In the city law department's opinion, such a meeting can be closed to the public, the mayor's spokesman said.

"The mayor maintains his right to meet with whomever he wishes, without the news media being present, including

members of the school board, including the superintendent, and will continue to do so in the future," said Mr. Coleman said.

The next public meeting on rezoning will take place at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at school board headquarters, where the board will be briefed on changes to the rezoning plan by the superintendent and his staff.

"The public is invited, but there is no formal public hearing," said board President Phillip H. Farfel.

He said the board expects to see "substantial changes" in the initial rezoning proposal, which set off a firestorm of public criticism.

That proposal would have closed nine schools, including Pimlico Middle School and four special education schools; eliminated the city's seven popular kindergarten-through-eighth-grade programs; ballooned enrollments at some middle schools; and required many students to take long bus rides to get to school.

It would have gone into effect in September, although members of the City Council have urged the board to wait until September 1994.

The superintendent and board president already have begun to signal some of the changes likely to emerge at Tuesday's session.

The kindergarten-8 schools, for example, probably will remain, and the number of such programs may even grow, they said last week. Par

ents at Violetville, Glenmount and Charles Carroll of Carrollton Elementary schools are seeking such programs.

Dr. Farfel also said the school system is unlikely to shut down at least one special education school that had been slated for closure, Sharp-Leadenhall, which caters to emotionally disturbed youngsters.

And school planners will re-examine the awkward bus routes and long commutes that parents say would result from the original proposal.

Still up in the air, however, is whether the school board will push ahead with rezoning this year, or delay parts of the plan.

Superintendent Amprey remains firmly in favor of a putting a revised plan into place in September, insisting that his planning staff is up to the task.

Dr. Farfel said he is proceeding as if some rezoning plan will take effect in September. But the board president said that could change, once the board reviews all the data and comments from the public hearings.

"If there are things in there that are good for children . . . why wait?" the board president asked.

Though school staffers concede that their original rezoning proposal has flaws, they also blame the City Council, which two years ago withheld $1.6 million in school money for a few months, in part because of the slow pace of rezoning.

The council's pressure for quick action on rezoning forced the proposal to be issued without giving the public a chance to flag potential trouble spots in advance, school officials say.

Council members dispute that scenario, however, saying they never set a deadline and never told school officials to rush rezoning.

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