School aid fight takes center stage Even in city, some support cutoff

March 19, 1993|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

In the annual battle of the budget in Annapolis, Baltimore's ailing school system is under the gun.

The issue: a move by the House of Delegates to withhold $4.8 million in city school aid as a way of prodding what some legislators see as a recalcitrant school administration.

In less than a week's time, the House action has become a virtual referendum on the city school system and on the propriety of state interference in the affairs of local government. And it has revealed a split in thinking between the House and the Senate on how best to encourage Baltimore school reform, as well a rift among city officials themselves.

will do all that we can to make sure that it doesn't become law," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said yesterday, a day after the House voted 85-43 in favor of the plan. "This is an attempt by a small group of legislators to micromanage one local department."

In fact, a Senate subcommittee, led by Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, already has prepared a far milder proposal that would spare the city's money, while still requiring the state to monitor the city's school reform efforts for three years.

"As far as the city Senate delegation is concerned, it's an inappropriate and improper intrusion into the educational system," said Sen. John A. Pica Jr., also a Baltimore Democrat and head of the city's legislative delegation. "It's a slap in the face of Baltimore City, and we're not going to tolerate it over here."

But critics of the city school system -- including some city elected officials themselves -- see the move as a badly needed bit of discipline.

"The city has not delivered for its children," said Councilman Carl Stokes, a 2nd District Democrat who is head of the council's education committee. "The school system has gotten many, many carrots, and I think a few hits with the stick would help the city along."

The city's beleaguered school system is ranked dead last of all school districts on the state's annual "report card" measuring such things as attendance, dropouts, and state reading, math and citizenship test scores.

This week's House action comes at a time when some state lawmakers have voiced outright contempt for the city schools, and when Gov. William Donald Schaefer has come out in support a change in the school aid formula that would penalize the city and other jurisdictions with poor school attendance.

Ironically, the move by the House effort was led in part by Del. Howard P. Rawlings, one of the city's top-ranking lawmakers and head of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. The plan would hold back $4.8 million in school aid until the city agrees to implement reforms urged last summer by Towers Perrin/Cresap, nationally known consulting group.

The report critiqued the city schools in sometimes-harsh language, saying, for instance, that the "culture of complacency that pervades the Baltimore City public schools must be broken."

It called for tougher accountability for school employees, criticized what the consultants saw as overly generous union contracts, and urged greater autonomy for individual schools and principals to structure their own programs.

Among the specific recommendations:

* The elimination of 77 central administration jobs, saving $2.7 million in two years, including the elimination of 28 school police officers.

* Streamlining everything from school security to textbook purchasing by eliminating duplication, cutting excess staff, and shifting some work from headquarters to the schools themselves or to contrac- tors.

* A group of 12 new "executive directors" who would each oversee a cluster of 15 schools.

* More power for school principals, who would have more leeway to pick their staffs and design their schools' teaching programs.

Mr. Rawlings and Del. Timothy F. Maloney, a Prince George's Democrat who heads the Appropriations Committee's education panel, strongly support the Cresap report and say the city has moved too slowly in implementing its recommendations.

But school officials reject that, saying they already are hard at work on 95 of 101 recommendations contained in the Cresap report and in a separate study commissioned by Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

For example, they note that 51 central office positions identified in the Cresap report already have been eliminated, at a savings of $1.7 million.

They also argue that the school system asked for the studies, found the money for them, laid itself open to the consultants and accepted their findings -- only to be attacked for moving too slowly.

"It's just so insulting and demoralizing," Dr. Amprey said yesterday. "Yes, I think we're being held hostage. I don't think it's fair."

Dr. Amprey said that while he supports most of the Cresap report, he sees no need to follow every recommendation blindly.

For example, the superintendent decided on just six assistant superintendents to oversee different geographical parts of the city, not the 12 recommended in the report.

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