Baltimore County's magnet schools may be losing some of their attraction.
For a short time last week, the school board entertained a budget amendment that would have halted five new magnet programs, even as letters of acceptance were on their way to prospective students.
When that was defeated 5-4, board members moved to put a moratorium on future magnet programs. Tabled for now, the motion is due to come up again next week.
Appearing out of nowhere, the amendment introduced by board member Dunbar Brooks took other board members, magnet school principals and Superintendent Stuart Berger, a strong proponent of magnet programs, by surprise and left them groping to understand the intentions of a board that has nurtured its magnets.
"What is the message here?" asked Ken Burch, principal of Western School of Technology and Environmental Science, a former technical center that opened as a comprehensive magnet high school in September 1993. "The magnet schools got the message that we were only one vote away from losing the support we had. There was a yellow flag on that vote."
Designed to desegregate racially isolated schools without busing or redistricting and to offer students more educational choices, magnet programs bring together students with common interests and concentrate on one or a few areas of study. In 18 months, the county has created 16 magnet programs with nearly 7,000 students. Eight more programs are expected to open next year.
"I'd like to tell you I didn't take it personally, but I did," Dr. Berger said. "We'll close them all and redistrict" if that's what the board wants, he said the day after the meeting.
Despite criticism that magnets cost too much and drain resources from neighborhood schools, Dr. Berger remains committed to them. "I believe that the magnet schools are, without a doubt, one of the greatest things that have happened here. They have stabilized this county," he said.
Mr. Brooks, though a supporter of high school magnets, said his initial intention was to reduce next year's operating budget by $1.14 million for new elementary and middle school magnets. Those that would have lost money are Hillendale Elementary -- to be renamed Halstead Academy -- and Parkville, Loch Raven, Johnnycake and Deer Park middle schools.
Board member Sanford V. Teplitzky cautioned that such a vote would mean these programs would not be able to open, even though the board approved them months ago and the schools had advertised for and recruited students.
However, Mr. Brooks, Phyllis Ettinger, Mary Katherine Scheeler and student member Matthew Adams voted for the amendment.
Although Mrs. Scheeler conceded that the amendment caused a lot of excitement, she did not see it as drastic. "The amendment was to take a little time out and weigh what was happening," she said.
Talking later about his amendment, Mr. Brooks said, "I certainly would not want to penalize the schools." But he said he had "real misgivings" about continuing to fund magnet programs without a plan and in competition with other needs.
"Look, we have to really prioritize," he said. "You can't do everything at once."
During a recent magnet update, Mr. Brooks had asked for a strategic plan for magnets, including how many the county needed and could afford. Magnet schools coordinator Anita Stockton said the system is hiring a consultant to do an evaluation and long-range plan, which she expects to be finished in six months.
Because Mr. Brooks had mentioned "a strategic plan" several times, he did not consider his amendment surprising. Others did.
"I think Dunbar caught everyone by surprise," said board member Robert F. Dashiell. "I don't think the program ought to be stopped in its tracks. At the same time, we ought to have a more definite strategy."
The 22 magnets school principals have been meeting among themselves to assess what some see as a threat to magnets. "We have the enrollment; we have the kids' interest; we have the parents' interest," Mr. Burch said. "We ain't rollin' over."
Some magnet programs do have hefty budgets, which administrators justify as start-up costs that will diminish quickly and as an inexpensive means of providing more seats without building new schools. For instance, the budget request for Woodlawn Center for Pre-Engineering is $960,117, up from $265,252 last year. At Carver Center for Arts and Technology, the request totals nearly $600,000, up from about $327,000.
Even before last week's assault, magnets schools took a hit from the board, which asked Dr. Berger to move around $4.1 million of next year's budget to provide more for additional elementary school teachers and instructional assistants. About $1.4 million of that came from the $6.7 million magnet budget.
For some schools, such as Western, Carver and Eastern Technical High School, the cut translated into 25 percent of their budget request. "What we're really trying to do is serve students in very innovative ways," said Eastern Principal Robert Kemmery. "When you politicize the process and you take away budget, how do you make it happen?"