City schools told to ignore budget deficit Schmoke's new order reverses earlier call for deep cost cutting

Would be 'devastating blow'

Mayor hopes to beat state in funding suit, freeing frozen money

August 16, 1996|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

With just weeks before Baltimore schools reopen with a shortfall of about $30 million, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has done an about-face and told school officials not to implement his drastic cost-cutting plan that would have forced teacher layoffs to balance the budget.

An optimistic Schmoke said yesterday that he is banking on winning the lawsuit he filed in September to force the state to increase aid to city schools.

Hoping to force Schmoke to settle, state officials withheld millions of dollars this year and consequently created a huge shortfall in the city education coffers.

"If we implemented at the beginning of the school year a plan that would assume the loss of $30 million, it would be a devastating blow to the schools," Schmoke said. "They could hardly operate."

The court action is to begin in November and is expected to last six to 10 weeks.

"I doubt that any fair-minded person recognizing that these schools need more money would withhold an amount that would total $30 million, because that type of thinking is not only illogical but is reminiscent of the military experts during the Vietnam War who told us that we would have to burn the village to save the people," Schmoke said.

Last month, Schmoke instructed the school system to work out ways to absorb the $30 million deficit.

It amounted to roughly $250 less for each pupil -- an amount that would leave many schools struggling to make ends meet.

Some principals have already figured out what would have to be cut.

Bonnie S. Erickson, principal of Patterson High School in Southeast Baltimore, says she would have to make do with $500,000 less.

"I don't have $500,000 after I pay salaries," Erickson said. I won't be able to pay the phone bill. I won't have money for anything."

Erickson said that she would not lay off teachers and that students would have only a teacher and a classroom when they return to school.

Michael Cheatam, principal of Calvin Rodwell Elementary in Northwest Baltimore, said his plan would be to terminate the art, physical education and library resource teachers.

In addition, he said he has held off on plans to buy partitions for classes that have no walls between the rooms.

"We are going on like it is a regular school year, but in the back of our minds it is like a hurricane is coming and we need to be prepared," he said.

Craig Spilman, principal of Canton Middle School in Southeast Baltimore, said he is confident that Schmoke and state officials will work out a deal before the school year is out. Consequently, he has no plan for spending cuts at his school.

"I'm not going to make any plans to reorganize my school until I have to," Spilman said.

Though the state and the city could appeal the court's verdict, Schmoke said a judge's decision is likely to end the debate.

"We will have at least some preliminary indication from the court as to whether there is any validity to our claims from a legal point of view," Schmoke said. "The indications from the trial level will be very important to us and it might lead to breaking this logjam to the debate around the schools."

In response to the city lawsuit filed in September, the state has frozen $18 million in operating funds. The state also froze $12 million in supplemental funds.

In addition, the city is faced with a $14 million shortfall for school expenses added to the budget after it was approved.

Pub Date: 8/16/96

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