After weeks of trying to cope with a wave of arsons and violence that disrupted several Baltimore middle and high schools, the city school board voted last night to spend $1.5 million to step up supervision in its most troubled schools and asked for community help in solving the problems.
The budget adjustments will allow school administrators to hire 37 more hall monitors and 34 more resource officers who help police keep order in the schools.
Concentrated in 15 schools the system has designated as "high need," the extra help can be hired almost immediately in some cases, said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the system's chief of staff.
Principals have talked to temporary staff who were laid off last year and would like to come back to their jobs. Others will have to go through a background check and fingerprinting, which can take up to two weeks.
The school system also will make $200,000 to $300,000 in repairs at those 15 schools, as well as provide new cell phones and walkie-talkies so that staff can better communicate in large schools. The system will fix lights in areas where the lighting is so low that it has become a safety issue and make sure that external doors are working properly so that outsiders can't sneak in and cause problems.
To pay for the new hires, the school board is taking $500,000 from the fund for substitute teachers and $1 million from its $10 million reserve fund.
Rose Piedmont, the chief financial officer, said she had budgeted additional money for substitutes than was used last year. In addition, she said, the reserve fund is for unexpected emergencies.
"I can't think of anything that would be more of an emergency than the safety of the children," Piedmont said.
At least one board member expressed concern that the administration was proposing to hire school resource officers instead of police officers. "I feel very strongly about that," said Brian Morris, the board's vice chair. "I would rather have 25 fully trained officers. I don't buy into the concept that because you are a police officer you can't relate to children."
Board member Jerrelle Francois said she would prefer the hiring of new teachers for the classrooms, but despite the concerns, the motion passed.
During the public comment period, a number of parents expressed outrage at what they believe is the large number of vacancies in schools. Because of the shortage in teachers, Grotsky said, the school system will lower its standards somewhat and hire additional certified teachers to fill those vacancies, although they may not be qualified in the subject area they are teaching.
At an afternoon news conference at New Shiloh Baptist Church in West Baltimore, members of the community -- from churches, foundations and parent and business groups -- pledged their help to the school system. However, they offered few specifics on what they might do.
"I cannot underscore enough how grateful I am that you are here today ... for your reaching out, for your pulling together," schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said at the news conference. She said problems of the past week are limited to a small number of students in a few schools, and that the 89,000 children who are doing the right thing are never heard from.
"We hear about a dozen or so students that are causing havoc in some of our schools," she said.
Schools police Lt. Richard Damon said about a dozen students have been arrested in fights and fires at several schools in recent weeks.
Board President Patricia Welch said the ministers have said they will respond to whatever needs the school system identifies, including such things as helping to increase after-school programs and holding workshops for parents.
Some churches have had members volunteering time helping to keep order in the cafeteria and walking hallways at Walbrook High Uniform Services Academy, where a series of fires two weeks ago disrupted classes.
"Different churches have different expertise," Welch said. "Ministers want the directions and protocols to come from the school system."
Some churches may be matched with schools in their neighborhoods so that principals can decide what help they may provide.
Stephen Kaiser, a volunteer from the business community, said companies will raise money for specific projects, including providing cell phones to staff in schools and paying for the fingerprinting of new hall monitors or security guards.
The school system has created a hot line -- 443-984-1177 -- for community volunteers to call if they would like to help in the schools. It will be staffed between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Volunteers also may check the Web site at email@example.com.
In other business last night, school officials said Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights Elementary School would be closed because of water damage resulting from apparent vandalism.
The board voted to give David Stone the job of director of new initiative and charter schools, effective Nov. 29.
Stone, who resigned his seat on the school board last week, was approved without comment.