Hit hard, schools brace for more cuts

No matter the bailout, advocates, parents fear a `devastating' impact

Crisis In Baltimore Schools

February 26, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Special programs for gifted and talented students already have been canceled. Elementary school counselors have been laid off or moved to middle or high schools. And with money for substitute teachers cut, some classes are doubling up when a teacher is out sick.

For Baltimore's school children the financial crisis has brought disruption. But the next round of cost-cutting measures - which top state officials say will be necessary no matter what school system bailout plan emerges in Annapolis - likely would be more damaging.

School system advocates expect summer school for children with failing grades would be curtailed or canceled. Class sizes would increase to as many as 32 students in high school. And school and union officials worry that experienced teachers would quit in droves, especially if their pay is cut, as some proposals have urged.

"The overall impact is going to be devastating," said Brian Dale, executive vice president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Yesterday, city and state leaders met in Annapolis to discuss a possible solution but were unable to agree on a plan that would clear the way for the schools to receive a major cash infusion from the state.

Concerned that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the legislature may impose state control over city schools, Mayor Martin O'Malley, educational advocates, parents and teachers sought to increase their role and blunt the impact on children.

ACLU wants in

The mayor and the American Civil Liberties Union tried to interject themselves into a process that seemed now to be controlled by the governor. And parents and union leaders worked around the edge of negotiations, hoping to play even a minor role in shaping a revamped school system.

In a letter to the governor, O'Malley offered $33.6 million in city money and a list of suggested changes to ensure better fiscal accountability. The ACLU wrote to state leaders reminding them that it should be included in any discussions about the restructuring of the city school system.

The ACLU was one of the parties in the settlement of a lawsuit seven years ago that resulted in the current city-state partnership.

"It is very possible that we would not be troubled by greater state authority as long as that authority was matched with dollars to solve the problem," said Bebe Verdery, ACLU official. But if all the state offers in extra funding is loans, Verdery said, the ACLU would not find that acceptable. The ACLU has been left out of discussions.

Resistance to state rule

Across the city, teachers, parents and community groups fear that a state takeover - particularly in the form of a receivership - would erode the academic progress that has been made in the school system.

"If receivership only means cost-cutting measures to help us meet the bottom line," said Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore Council of PTAs, "then obviously everything that you do will affect the classroom."

Hamilton said cuts made this year have affected the quality of instruction. Schools have called the PTAs' office, asking for help purchasing basic supplies, he said, such as paper, pencils and calculators.

Getting rid of summer school, Dale said, would jeopardize one of the school board's most important initiatives - eliminating social promotion.

"What are you going to do? Are you going to tell a third of the students they aren't going to pass and there is nothing you can do about it?" Dale said.

Hope of aid influx

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, who has promised to present the governor this week with an academic improvement plan for the schools, was more optimistic. She is basing her hopes on passage of the so-called Thornton school funding initiative, which would give the city an additional $76 million next year.

"There'll be a huge emphasis on reading," said Grasmick, especially in the early, "formative" years. Class sizes will be carefully differentiated, "more so than they are now," so that children in kindergarten through third-grade are in smaller classes and older children are in larger groups.

Grasmick said the system will "continue to downsize high schools," one of the initiatives of former schools chief Carmen V. Russo, and "pay particular attention to low-performing middle schools."

Even if Thornton aid is approved by the governor and legislature, parents and teachers expect an exodus of some of the system's best teachers. "The experienced teachers, teachers with options, are going to leave this system because of the turmoil," said Larry Gaines, the immediate past president of the school system's Parent Community Advisory Board.

`Bare-bones schools'

A grass-roots parent group, Advocates for Reform at the Top, which represents parents from several city schools, predicted yesterday that receivership would result in teacher layoffs and leave behind "bare-bones schools."

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