Painful history lesson relearned

The Education Beat

Uprising: Long-suffering teachers express their anger toward what they feel is an arrogant administration. Sound familiar?

February 15, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE TEACHERS were angry. Oh, were they angry! The miserable February weather didn't help.

It wasn't so much the money, though a nice raise would have been welcome. No, it was the arrogance of top administrators. "We feel like dirt beneath their feet," said Berkley Matthews, a teacher at Mount Washington Elementary. She and her colleagues, she said, had been "systematically insulted, degraded and abused."

That was then, February 1974, the last time Baltimore teachers rose en masse and in fury against those in charge of the system. Eighty percent of the teachers stayed out for nearly a month, and although officials on 25th Street declared the schools open throughout the strike, the vast majority of parents kept their kids home.

There are, of course, differences. Thirty years ago, the teachers were in a contract dispute. Today, they're being asked to sacrifice to help ease a severe budget crisis. Thirty years ago, their pay lagged far behind colleagues in nearby districts. Today, it's competitive.

Thirty years ago, there were gasoline lines and the mayor was named Schaefer. Today, there's plenty of petrol and the mayor is named O'Malley. Thirty years ago, the superintendent was Roland N. Patterson, brought in to preside over the necessary transfer of power in the system to black leaders. Today, the chief executive is Bonnie S. Copeland, brought in to straighten out a financial mess left by her predecessor.

But looking through The Sun's file of photos and news reports on the 1974 strike, I was struck by the similarities. "Urban poverty finally caught up with Baltimore," I wrote on March 3, 1974, the day before the strike ended bitterly, with nowhere near the gains the teachers had sought. "It was seen in larger class sizes, a lack of money for bus trips, lower salaries than those in surrounding counties and a lack of materials and supplies.

"City teachers were spending as much as $500 from their own pockets to supply the necessary pencils and paper to keep their classes going."

If that doesn't sound familiar, try the next paragraph: "Each city teacher working under these physical and emotional strains wondered if he was alone. There was no way of telling. The school system was too big for teachers to communicate effectively."

Some things about education never change. Teaching was a lonely business 30 years ago. That hasn't changed. Teachers need recognition, understanding and, occasionally, praise. They need to be treated like professionals. When they're treated like children, when they're called upon to sacrifice for the mismanagement of others, they will rise up together.

The atmosphere of the teacher gatherings in the early days of the 1974 strike could have been transferred, lock, stock and fury, to the Convention Center on Thursday afternoon. City and school officials in 1974 badly misjudged the mood of the teachers, just as they did last week. Back then, Patterson declared a day or two before the strike that nearly all teachers were contented, a blunder that prompted a flurry of picket signs: "I'm the One" and "Another Unhappy Teacher."

A frustrated Mayor William Donald Schaefer said he was confused over what the teachers "really wanted," another mistake that drew this response from one of the strikers: "an attitude, just a single statement of humility from 25th Street."

Since 1974, I've walked two picket lines of my own. Both times, in 1978 and 1987, I was struck by the role played by attitude. I thought both strikes could have been prevented - at very little extra cost to the newspaper - had management treated its employees with respect during negotiations. The same can be said for these two remarkable teacher uprisings exactly 30 years apart.

Oh, yes, the settlement in 1974 moved a typical teacher on the fourth step of the master's degree pay scale from $9,400 to $9,910.

Separating the criminals from the incompetents

"You have to discern the difference between malfeasance and mismanagement," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick on Friday in announcing the appointment of an independent three-member panel to investigate the city school budget mess.

Exactly. For example, the school system spent millions it apparently couldn't afford on summer school and academic coaches. That might have been mismanagement, but it probably wasn't criminal. Before going after criminal activity, the investigation has to separate what was malfeasance at North Avenue from what was merely stupid.

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