Schmoke, Clarke differ on pace for decentralizing school system CAMPAIGN 1995

September 04, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

When it comes to improving schools, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and mayoral candidate Mary Pat Clarke want the same things for Baltimore's children: safer corridors and the kind of student achievement that a $647 million budget should produce.

But they differ dramatically about how to get those results. It's a big-picture issue: How much power, how much money and what role in education should be assigned to the people who can deliver the goods to children -- principals, teachers and parents?

Mr. Schmoke's school administration gives them a say in the spending of a fraction of the tax dollars earmarked for running schools.

Mrs. Clarke calls that token power. Give them the lion's share of the budget, she said, and let them reinvent education in %J Baltimore.

"I don't want to just talk about giving the community power in their schools -- I want to do it," said Mrs. Clarke, the City Council president and challenger in the Democratic primary Sept. 12.

Mrs. Clarke, a former teacher, has pledged to redirect school spending in a way that would dismantle much of the North Avenue headquarters. It is a proposal that some school reformers describe as inspired -- and her critics call impossible.

She would shift 97 percent of the education budget -- roughly $627 million -- from headquarters to schools, she said.

With this pool of money, teams made up of principals, parents, busi ness volunteers and teachers would redesign each school -- from lessons to lunch menus, from top to bottom.

They could vote to buy a private-school curriculum or use the school system's. Schools could pair up and launch their own staff training programs. They also could hire as many security officers as the budget would allow.

Mrs. Clarke would ask businesses to help school teams learn to manage the money.

The leftover 3 percent in Mrs. Clarke's education budget would sustain a pared-down headquarters, she said. The central administration would be watchdog, adviser, vendor and record keeper for school-improvement teams and principals. It would manage dollars and services that could not be shifted to schools.

In effect, Baltimore would have 177 charter schools -- independent public schools managed by their communities with support from central office.

Mrs. Clarke forecasts a difficult first year or two, but doesn't say how this decentralization would come about. The details would be worked out in the future, she said.

Schmoke's decentralization

Mr. Schmoke calls elements of Mrs. Clarke's proposal a "prescription for chaos." He talks about his record on schools -- he already has led the school system into decentralization, and he wants to continue carefully and methodically. With his blessing, the system started to decentralize about 1990 -- no less radically, but much more slowly than Mrs. Clarke advocates.

By 1993, on the advice of a coalition of citizen and teacher groups, 14 schools began experimenting with managing their budgets. The next year, a pilot project included 23 schools.

Last year, amid public criticism of their management practices, school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and the school board declared all 177 schools "enterprise" operations at once. They ignored the advice of a management consultant to expand to 20 or 25 schools at a time.

Results have been mixed.

Schools with adept and power-sharing principals have organized quickly. Teams of parent, teacher and business volunteers help decide: Should we hire an art teacher or buy library books? How will we reward good attendance? How will we handle troublemakers?

On paper, principals have authority for 47 percent of the education budget -- more than $300 million including salaries, grants and federal poverty money. But many of the spending decisions and nearly all hiring still is directed through the central office.

Actual school-based control is much smaller, according to budget documents. Last year, Dr. Amprey asked the school teams to manage $35 million -- about 5.5 percent of the total education budget.

Budget documents show they took on only $19 million. They weren't ready for or didn't want all the responsibility offered to them, finance officers said during budget hearings.

This fall, the school system is forging ahead. It gave schools control over an additional $15 million, for a total of $34 million.

Principals now are responsible for minor repairs, telephone bills and maintenance contracts once managed centrally. They must buy cleaning, repair and snow-removal services from a reorganized school custodial department -- or hire private firms.

For some principals, the system is working. But others say it is moving too fast. They say they want more coaching, although nonprofit and business groups have pitched in to help train them and school teams.

Power-sharing and big-budget managing doesn't come naturally for some principals, they say. There's never enough money. And sometimes, when things go wrong, North Avenue and the schools point fingers at each other: You're in charge.

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