How the city lost a teacher it will sorely miss


July 24, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

This is about one woman's difficult choice, but it's also about public commitment to kids, especially the poorer ones who live in Baltimore.

The loss this month of a potentially terrific city teacher -- a woman we'll call Rose for the purposes of this column -- was guaranteed by years of political myopia, bureaucratic inertia and too many people tolerating disparities in the quality of education throughout the state. Blame goes to, among others, a two-term mayor now more interested in campaigning for governor than campaigning for city schools.

Rose's nickname should be Dedication. She's dedicated to Baltimore, to teaching, to kids. She, her husband and their three kids live in the city.

"I love my neighborhood; the people are wonderful," she says. "I love Baltimore. I don't want to run to the county."

Rose is a teacher -- "calculus, trig, advanced stuff" -- with nine years of experience. She taught in three states, almost always instructing college-bound kids in heavy-metal math. "I am not good at everything," Rose says, "but I am a very good teacher, someone who makes a difference -- if I do say so myself."

She quit six years ago to have children. She and her husband moved to Baltimore with the idea that Rose would teach part time. Three babies later, she finally got a chance to do that, taking a position at a city high school last year. She loved it.

"I believe very strongly in public schools," says Rose, who could give the mayor of Baltimore lessons in firm, declarative speech. "My kids attend a public school in Baltimore. I volunteer there, and when I saw that their school needed some equipment, my husband and I donated $1,000 to buy it. I have worked closely, for free, with some of the faculty at my children's school to enhance the math program there. I loved working at [the city high school] and looked forward to going full time there next year."

In the meantime, a private school contacted Rose about a teaching position. She had mailed resumes a year earlier, and the offer came as a surprise. She went for the job interview.

"I thought there was no way I'd leave the city school," she says. "I didn't seriously consider accepting the position [at the private school]. I really believe that people like me have to stay with public schools if they are ever to improve."

Then, early this month, she found out how much the city of Baltimore could pay.

"I was told it would be $26,800 at the most," Rose says, noting that the offer from the private school had been $31,500. "My husband and I thought about it, and we decided we could give up $5,000 a year."

That was what she was willing to pay to keep her commitment to public education. That was the price of principle.

But the city's final salary offer turned out to be only $24,000.

"I made $24,000 10 years ago," Rose says. "I have children who need to go to college."

Her husband's employer has had problems and, she says, "We fear layoffs every week."

The city schools couldn't afford to lose someone like Rose.

And yet, the city schools lost their Rose. They let her go.

"I'm so angry," she says. "It breaks my heart. Throwing money at the schools will not solve their problems but refusing to pay people what they're worth is penny-wise but pound-foolish."

We've been doing things that way for years, as anyone familiar with the basic math of education funding in Maryland over the last two decades should know. By 1991-1992, per-pupil spending was $7,377 in Montgomery County. It was $5,182 in Baltimore.

A more recent analysis put combined city, state and federal spending at $5,549 per student in Baltimore, still well behind Montgomery and most other school districts -- even well behind the per-rider cost of the light rail system. Taking into account its mediocre first-year ridership, the yearly bond payments on the construction cost and its annual operating budget, light rail costs Maryland taxpayers about $8,800 per round-trip customer.

We're spending a lot more to transport people to Orioles games than to educate kids.

The mayor of Baltimore, frustrated with this -- maybe even outraged by the immorality of it -- announced plans for a lawsuit to force the state to spend more money on poor school districts.

But the mayor, with no stomach for a fight, pulled that punch last month. He decided it would not be wise to sue the state. The mayor of Baltimore doesn't like to make anyone angry. He's a polite man.

And he is thinking about running for governor.

From what platform does this balloon ascend? There's not much there really. The mayor's handlers, who had the benefit of college education, are good at math; they look at the numbers, the voting demographics, and they tell the mayor that, if he runs, he can win, and that seems to form the basis for the whole idea. So, while Rose was signing a contract to teach at a private school, the mayor of Baltimore was schmoozing at a crab feast on the Eastern Shore.

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