Board stands up to be counted Policy battle: Members say they won't "roll over" and let state officials take away their power to set policy for city schools.

The Education Beat

February 21, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

Like a neglected child who climbs onto his desk and yells bloody murder to attract attention, the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners finally asserted itself the other night.

After three hours of issuing citations and bragging about this and that program, the board unanimously approved a strongly worded resolution attacking those who would take away its power to set policy for city schools.

"With our integrity and reputations on the line," the resolution said, "the time to roll over and remain quiet has ended." The statement attacked "persons in the state government" -- meaning the likes of state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and West Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings -- who would "destroy the school system through the withholding of funds, disguised partnership proposals, takeover attempts and court actions."

An observer could see the determination on board members' faces as they voted. In the short and long run, things had been building to this breaking point.

In the short run, there has been talk of a city-state "partnership" that would put an end to the unpaid, volunteer board, the only one in Maryland appointed by a subdivision's elected chief. In the long run, almost unnoticed, the board has seen much of its power drain from school headquarters to City Hall and the state Education Department.

There is also concern that other big-city boards -- in Chicago and Boston, for example -- have been wiped out or rendered impotent by politicians. (The loss of school board influence in big cities corresponds with the cities' increased dependence on state aid, perhaps proving again that he who pays the piper calls the tune.)

Noting the board's new-found mettle and the emergence of supportive citizen groups such as Friends of Education -- which rallied last night at North Avenue in support of local control -- board President Phillip H. Farfel was almost gleeful.

"People call us impotent. I don't feel impotent. I feel potent," he said.

But if the 1996 city school board is less potent and less visible than in the past, it is also less elitist and, with seven of nine members who are black, more representative of the school population.

Civic leader Walter Sondheim served on the board from 1948 to 1957, an era that he refers to, tongue in cheek, as "the golden age."

Since there are few regulations on board service, past mayors tapped the city's power structure. The Board of School Commissioners traditionally comprised the Johns Hopkins University president or his designate, the same for the University of Maryland, at least one prominent lawyer, a token Jew and some members to represent the hinterlands.

Today's board represents almost every area of the city.

"When problems came along, we left them to the professional educators," said Mr. Sondheim, "and the mayor would never have interfered. When we desegregated the schools in 1954, it was a last-minute thought to notify the mayor."

By 25 years ago this winter, the board had four blacks and a white liberal who sided with them and made the professional life of Superintendent Thomas D. Sheldon so difficult that he quit.

"There are some things that we do to kill the golden goose in this city," Dr. Sheldon said on his way out of town.

Board meetings were so raucous in those days that Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III called the commissioners to a private meeting and threatened to fire them all if the "name-calling, picayune bickering and discourtesies" didn't stop.

But the mayor was almost apologetic about crossing into school board turf. It was a far cry from the present, when Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke meets regularly with the board, makes such major decisions as canceling the Education Alternatives Inc. contract and even decides superintendent appointments.

Some things haven't changed. The board still devotes most of its meeting time to ceremonial events, prints its agenda on pink paper and approves -- with thanks -- donations such as Theresa Neal's $10 last Thursday to the Dunbar High School choir.

People still leave money to city schools in their wills, and there's something comforting in that.

Helping new mothers

The Laurence G. Paquin School for pregnant teen-agers opened a computer learning laboratory, "Log-on to Learn," yesterday that is designed to help new mothers keep up their studies during the several weeks after their babies are born.

The program allows a mother to visit the school, infant in tow, log on in the laboratory while the child is cared for, and complete assignments by computer. When she returns in a few days, she'll read her teacher's comments and corrections by e-mail. She'll keep up with schoolwork while learning a marketable skill on the computer.

The Johns Hopkins University's Center for Academic Advancement is developing the curriculum.

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