Blacks denounce schools package Management reforms, aid labeled an affront to Baltimore residents

'Smack of racist paternalism'

Highly charged letter delivered to members of General Assembly

April 04, 1997|By Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Jean Thompson, John Rivera and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

In a last-minute lobbying effort, the head of the national NAACP joined a group of black Baltimore ministers, news media figures and others yesterday in denouncing a package of aid and management reforms for the city school system pending in the legislature.

Kweisi Mfume, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, former Rep. Parren J. Mitchell and others signed a highly charged letter delivered to members of the General Assembly yesterday, criticizing the bill as an affront to black city residents.

"We will not accept Baltimore becoming a colony of the State, with its citizens having no say in the education of their children," the letter said. "House Bill 312 and Senate Bill 795 are anti-democratic and smack of racist paternalism."

Resistance to the landmark legislation has been fanned in recent days by the ministers, Baltimore City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III and others who say the city is giving up too much power for too little in state financial aid.

Yesterday morning, Mfume told a rally of more than 250 at New Shiloh Baptist Church: "We've got to find a way to fix what is turning out to be a major effort to take away the city's ability to control its own public education."

Last night, he said he signed the letter at the urging of Bell, his cousin. "I just think we can make it better," Mfume said.

While supporters of the legislation in Annapolis said they were concerned about the opposition from some African-American leaders, they pointed out that many black officials are behind the bill, and they said they remain confident that it will be enacted.

The measure, backed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and key legislators, has cleared the Maryland Senate and is pending in the House of Delegates.

The legislation grows out of a consent decree signed last fall by the mayor, governor and others settling three lawsuits over conditions in the Baltimore schools. Should the legislation fail, the three lawsuits would be reopened and the issues of school management and funding would be back in court.

The bill would create a new school board, whose members would be appointed jointly by the governor and mayor from a list of nominees named by the state school board.

While critics have labeled the move a "state takeover," the system actually would be in the hands of the new board, whose members would have to be city residents.

Under the legislation, board membership would have to reflect, "to the extent practicable," the demographic composition of Baltimore, suggesting that the new board would have a black majority.

As an accompaniment to the management changes, the state has agreed to send $254 million in new aid to the schools over the next five years.

But critics call that amount unacceptable.

"Why are we giving up control, if the proposed amount of money we will receive will not meet the needs of the children, by the

state's own standards?" the Rev. Frank M. Reid, pastor of Bethel A.M.E. Church and Schmoke's stepbrother, said last night.

Schmoke said that the letter's rhetoric does not match the reality of the legislation.

"When I saw it, I just assumed that someone had given them a one-sided and distorted picture of what was going on in Annapolis," he said. "But I believe most of the parents of children in our schools understand that this partnership is in our children's best interest and the city's best interest."

House leaders have postponed voting on the bill until Glendening submits a package of budget sweeteners for other jurisdictions in the state.

Even so, those leaders said yesterday that despite the letter, they believe there is sufficient support in the 141-member House to pass the bill before the Assembly adjourns at midnight Monday.

"I think there is, unless I'm missing something," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "I think we can hold it together. If we leave here not solving this, I think it's a real black eye."

Taylor's chief lieutenant, Del. John Adams Hurson of Montgomery County, said he was "cautiously optimistic" after his deputies counted House votes on the issue yesterday.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a West Baltimore Democrat and key proponent of the bill, said the lobbying effort against the bill has -- been fraught with "misinformation and demagoguery."

"All but one of the black state senators voted for it and black leaders of this state, including the mayor are supporting this legislation," said Rawlings, who is black.

Del. Talmadge Branch, an East Baltimore Democrat, said the letter did not change his support for the legislation, though he acknowledged that the names Mfume and Parren Mitchell carry a lot of weight.

"I think it's making people think a little harder," said Branch, who is black.

But, he added, "How do you walk away from giving that money to the children?"

Glendening said yesterday that he had not seen the letter and had no comment on Mfume's involvement.

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