Candidates offer bright visions for city's schools

Despite Md. takeover, mayoral hopefuls see strong role as partner

More money, higher scores

August 24, 1999|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

One thing Baltimore's mayoral candidates have in common is taking stands on the one matter the city's next leader will have the least power over: city schools.

Two years ago, the state agreed to provide $254 million to Baltimore schools over five years in return for more control. Critics call the pact a "takeover," while supporters label it a "partnership."

The debate about how big a role a mayor should play in city schools is being played out across the nation.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley wrested control of the city schools from the state in 1995, then wiped out a $1.8 billion deficit and turned around the schools' poor academic performance.

Mayors in Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo and New Orleans have undertaken similar school reforms. And in Philadelphia, the mayor and City Council recently began pushing to change the city charter to gain more influence over the direction of city schools.

The common thread in the movement is a recognition by mayors that in addition to crime and taxes, schools play a crucial role in a city's marketability.

"They're the key to so many things you want to do as mayor," Daley said in a recent interview. "Attracting and retaining middle-class families in the city, providing a well-trained work force to attract and retain employees, changing your industrial base from smokestack to high-tech, fighting gangs, guns and drugs."

Much like Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke did in his first campaign in 1987, Democrat Carl Stokes has tried to set himself apart as the education candidate in a wide mayoral field focused on crime. The former city councilman and school board member has issued numerous position papers on what he says is needed to improve schools.

Stokes has pledged to work with the school board to reduce city elementary school classes to 15 pupils, from an average of 25, in an effort to improve math and reading scores.

As a member of the school board for two years, Stokes says he helped initiate class reductions from 29 to 21 pupils in the three lower grades. Grades four and five are targeted for reductions in this school year.

Citywide, reading scores increased 29 percent from 1998 to 1999, while math scores rose 18 percent. At Mount Royal Elementary School, where class sizes were reduced to 16 pupils from about 21, reading scores rose by 73 percent while math scores increased 55 percent, Stokes said.

"My vision for the city starts with children and education," said Stokes, who has pledged more after-school and recreation programs. "The most important thing we talk about is the vision for education."

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III has criticized Stokes, saying the cash-strapped city -- which faces a projected $153 million deficit over the next four years -- lacks the money to further reduce the size of elementary school classes. Bell contends that a more realistic goal is 20 pupils per class.

`The leverage is limited'

As council president, he opposed the state agreement to take over schools, and says the impact of the next mayor will be limited with the state now involved in the district.

Bell, a Democrat, would push for more city funding to education while trying to bring schools back under city jurisdiction after five years.

"In all honesty, the leverage [of the next mayor] is limited," Bell said. "I'm not going to make promises I can't keep."

Candidate A. Robert Kaufman advocates scrapping the school board system. Kaufman wants the nine-member school board -- now appointed by the governor and mayor -- to face city elections and to hold at least one seat each for parent, teacher and student representatives.

Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer recently shook up his city's elected school board by demoting members to unpaid advisers. He then set up a new seven-member reform board.

Despite the city and state spending $831 million annually for education in Baltimore, four of every 10 students who enter city high schools fail to graduate.

"Until the school board is elected, nothing is going to change," said Kaufman, a Democrat and founder of the City Wide Coalition civic group. "The people most affected by the schools -- parents, teachers and students -- have the least amount of power."

More lottery proceeds

Democratic candidate Mary W. Conaway, a former teacher, says supporting city teachers is the key to school reform. The Baltimore register of wills recently marched with teachers protesting the city's firing of 278 instructors, including many beginners.

Conaway asserts that the city should push the state for a larger portion of lottery funds because much of the proceeds flows from Baltimore. The money could provide higher pay to lure experienced teachers and keep good teachers from seeking jobs elsewhere.

"They need support and they need training," Conaway said.

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