As layoffs loom, reason for hope

The Education Beat

Optimism: Despite the problems evident in city schools, signs suggest the system can right itself.

November 23, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE MAYOR likens the school system to a "slow-moving train wreck." Teacher morale is low. Layoffs loom.

No, not that mayor, that school system, that wreck, that morale or those layoffs. This is the District of Columbia, where, in just the past few weeks:

The mayor, City Council and school board squabbled bitterly over control of the schools. The superintendent, shut out by everyone, resigned in frustration. And the White House proposed curing what ails the schools by handing out private-school vouchers.

Even as Baltimore enters a dark week in modern school history, with a record-breaking round of layoffs due Tuesday, we have reason to be hopeful. Although it won't come as solace to anyone handed a pink slip, there are at least five silver linings in those dark clouds:

The mayor, school board and Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland are on the same page. If the system is to recover financially, it's important that they work together, and so far that's happening. Mayor Martin O'Malley's appearance at the news briefing at which the layoffs were announced was more than symbolic. It was necessary. There's no similar sign of unanimity in the District or several other urban school systems in turmoil.

The school board is unpaid. Its members put in long hours, and some argue that they should be paid. But where board members are paid more than a token amount, demands for other perks - chauffeured cars, for example - almost always follow. And then comes corruption. Remarkably, though Baltimore's present crisis is deep and resulted from officials not minding the store, so far there's no evidence of illegal behavior.

The school board is appointed. An elected school board, the argument goes, is closer to "the people," and Baltimore's board has conducted too much of the public's business out of the public eye. But elected boards tend to be rent by politics, as the District board is demonstrating now. (Five of its nine members are elected.)

Sure, tension on the Baltimore board is surfacing as it confronts this crisis, but compared to school boards in D.C., St. Louis and Detroit, this board is a model of civil behavior and collegiality.

Since 1997, the state board and state education department have been partners with the city in running the schools. Only about four miles separate North Avenue and West Baltimore Street, site of the state school headquarters. State officials have a keen interest in seeing a turnaround, and the state superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, is a Baltimore native with a personal attachment and strong commitment to city schools.

Detroit has to go through Lansing, New York City through Albany, Los Angeles through Sacramento. In all three cases, there's not a lot of incentive for state officials to help the distressed urban systems. That's not the case here, and there's another bonus: Grasmick is on the good side of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who sounded her out as a possible running mate.

The shrinking of the city school system - from 195,000 students three decades ago to 92,000 today - is actually an opportunity. The smaller the system, the easier to get the financial house in order.

When that day comes, here's how we'll know: A reporter, or any other inquiring citizen, will be able to call North Avenue and find out the number of people employed by the system. For a number of years - decades, in fact - that's been impossible.

Four decades later, memories are fresh

All last week, he'd been thinking about where he was at 1:30 p.m. 40 years ago yesterday, when the principal of Oceanside High School in Oceanside, N.Y., came on the public address system, announced that the president had been shot and asked for a moment of silence.

He was 22 years old, teaching English, trying to keep afloat in one of the toughest jobs in America, especially for the pay it brings in. He taught only the one year. Long ago, his students' names drifted from memory.

Then last week it hit him. Those kids are now in their mid-50s. Did any of them tell their children (or grandchildren, for heaven's sake) where they were that early afternoon?

Did anyone say, "I remember it was Mr. Bowler's English class, and when we came back after a long break for the funeral, he read `When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd' and cried like a baby"?

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