City seeks more say in reform of schools

Lack of local residents on planned state panel worries parents, officials

'It is insulting,' Cummings says

February 28, 2004|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore elected officials, activists and parents protested yesterday that a proposal to put a new panel in charge of the financially strapped city school system would give the state too much control over the education of the city's children.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he wants a greater role in overseeing the system's budget in exchange for a $42 million loan that would help the system deal with a crushing cash flow shortfall and a $58 million deficit.

"Every time they give money to a system that is black or minority, they come in and they have to change everything. They have to tear the system apart," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat.

On Thursday, state officials outlined a plan to fix the fiscal problems of the school system by creating a three- to five-member board that would temporarily assume the powers of the current school board, balance the system's books and cut costs.

A draft of emergency legislation to reshape school management will be worked out over the weekend, and lawmakers and other city and state officials are scheduled to meet Monday to review a version of the bill.

Ehrlich aides say the governor would likely appoint the majority of the members of the proposed new board - a prospect that concerns many Baltimore leaders.

"I don't want our children to think that their mothers and fathers cannot run the school system that educates them. I have a major problem with that," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a product of the city's public school system. "Baltimore is full of people who are capable of running the school system. It is insulting to the people of the city when they are put in a situation in which they are not in control of their schools, like every other school system in America."

Before details of the plan were disclosed, Mayor Martin O'Malley said he had agreed in principle to the arrangement. Later, when the mayor heard that Ehrlich had spelled out specifics of the plan, O'Malley contended it contained elements he had not agreed to. The mayor tried to get his message out yesterday by sending an e-mail newsletter to thousands of residents.

O'Malley said his understanding was that the governor and the mayor would make an equal number of appointees with the third or fifth person being independent. He said that he will work with the city's delegation in Annapolis to request amendments to the plan, if they are needed, to give the city more influence.

In the legislation, O'Malley wants a provision requiring the school system to balance its budget and a residency requirement for all the members of the panel - which he prefers to call a new school board rather than a panel with broad new authority. The mayor said yesterday that the city and state should continue to run the schools jointly.

But Ehrlich ades say that because the state provides far more funding for schools than the city, the governor's representatives should have a majority role.

"It should be proportional representation following the level of support," said state budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., the architect of the preliminary agreement. "The state provides two-thirds of the education funding for the 91,000 Baltimore City school children. Obviously, the makeup of any short-term authority should mirror the level of support."

While many details concerning the panel remained unclear, Ehrlich said he would probably name former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, who had been advising the school system on its financial matters until recently. State officials have also said State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick could be considered.

Neall has said he is interested in remaining closely involved in the school system's financial affairs. Grasmick said yesterday her role was not yet clear.

"That's not for me to decide," she said. "It has to be a consensus."

Grasmick said she thought the panel should include an education-oriented person such as herself to manage academics in addition to overseeing fiscal functions.

Small protest

The prospect of giving too much control of the city schools to the state had about 20 parents, teachers, union leaders and concerned community activists demonstrating yesterday in front of the state Board of Education on West Baltimore Street.

The demonstrators, a loose coalition organized by the ACORN community group, carried signs that labeled Ehrlich a "deadbeat Dad" and proclaimed "Help the children of Baltimore City."

Baltimore Council of PTAs President Michael Hamilton said that the current proposal is troublesome because it might include further cost-cutting this year, and because the suggested makeup of the panel overlooks issues of diversity and city residency.

"The fact that the individuals who may be appointed to this panel [are people] who do not have a vested interest in this city and who do not think very highly about this city is a problem," Hamilton said, referring mainly to Neall.

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