Blackmailing the city

March 19, 1993

Confronted with a perennial state budget crisis, the House Appropriations Committee and its chairman, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, don't have enough to do. So the Rawlings panel recommended withholding $4.8 million in state aid from Baltimore schools unless the city adopts recommendations made in a nine-month-old consultant's study. The House of Delegates upheld the committee Wednesday night in a vote on amendments to Gov. William Donald Schaefer's proposed $12.7 billion budget.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey is understandably upset. In January, he had issued a detailed report on steps he has taken to carry out the recommendations. They include abolishing 51 jobs in the much-maligned central office to save $1.7 million. Some things he did not do. He did not reduce the school security force, as the out-of-town consultants had recommended. He did not create a network of locally managed "enterprise schools" with greater authority over their own operations, but he has been moving steadily toward that goal.

That is not enough for the Rawlings committee, whose chairman, a West Baltimore delegate, seems to want to micromanage the city system while holding it hostage for the full amount of aid it is due. It's a kind of blackmail that sets a dangerous precedent. Where will the panel turn next? To another school system that has not implemented the recommendations of another consultant?

When it was released, we praised the Towers Perrin report. Its criticism was well aimed -- at weak management and a "culture of complacency" in the schools. But nowhere was it writ that this was a blueprint down to the last angle and line. (Earlier last year an internal management study by a group of former administrators made similar recommendations, but that report didn't become the Appropriations Committee's bible.)

And nowhere was there a timetable stipulated. Dr. Amprey maintains he can't change a "culture of complacency" in eight months, and he is right.

The city system seems to have become a convenient whipping boy for a frustrated Mr. Rawlings and suburban legislators who assume it is a hole down which all state aid is wasted.

This latest bit of blackmail allows these lawmakers to tell their constituents that they're finally doing something about that dreadful city system. There are better ways, though. One is to study the badly flawed state school aid formula and rework it so the quality of students' education does not depend on where they live.

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