City board shifts power to schools Plan to decentralize unwritten but OK'd


A plan to give more power to individual schools at the expense of the central bureaucracy was resurrected and approved by the Baltimore school board last night -- although board members then said the first step they must take is to rewrite the plan.

Such a reworking could diminish the role of the Baltimore Teachers Union, which proposed the plan in the first place. But board members said their aim is to encourage experimentation by the schools, as broadly as possible.

"What we hope we have done is open the door," said Joseph L. Smith, the board president.

Yet community activists who spoke up in favor of decentralization but against the specifics of the plan were left puzzled over what the school system actually intends to do.

"We come out tonight and it's even more confusing," said Susan P. Leviton, president of a group called Advocates for Children and Youth.

The whole issue of city school decentralization -- which has been dubbed "restructuring" -- has moved forward in alternating rushes and stumbles. It grew out of the last contract signed by the teachers union. It was ready last spring but not taken up by the board until late summer. When community groups then complained that it was being rushed through, the board backed off.

Yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said he was getting frustrated with the delays.

"To keep the momentum, I think the board should make it very clear they favor restructuring," the mayor said early in the day. "If not, then a lot of people will throw up their hands and say, 'Here we go again, business as usual.' "

He talked to several board members during the day about the plan, and they told him they were ready to move.

The proposal calls for 20 schools to take part in a three-year experiment, beginning next fall. Each school is to have a council -- made up of teachers, parents, community members and the principal -- that will control the school's program. Under the original proposal, the makeup of the councils was quite specific, and was to have included the school's union representative.

But board members said the plan they approved last night -- but haven't written yet -- will allow schools much more latitude in choosing the council and in deciding how to run their own affairs. One new requirement, though, will be that at least 40 percent of the council members be parents or neighbor hood representatives.

The board members also said they would be willing to consider just about any kind of program proposal that a school might make, and up to $15,000 will be available to each participating school to help put its program into effect.

"We are going to look at any model that has the potential to succeed," said Phillip Farfel, head of the board's rules committee.

Ms. Leviton and others had argued that the plan as written was too vague on several key issues, including the specific powers each school would have over budgeting, personnel and curriculum, and the question of accountability if the school should experience any problems. Would it be the principal, they asked, or the school council? According to the plan, the councils were to make all their decisions by consensus.

Mr. Smith said last night that those issues would need to be addressed in the rewritten blueprint.

"But people will understand clearly what opportunities they will have," he promised.

The board members asked for trust in the revision of the decentralization plan. They said they needed to act quickly so that schools can begin readying their applications to participate and get their programs ready by next September.

The board also approved the membership of a new task force to devise a curriculum incorporating both African and African-American culture. The task force, which will have 30 members, will analyze the current curriculum in math and science, social studies, English and foreign languages, and physical education and the arts, and make recommendations by next April.

The head of the task force will be Rebecca Carroll, a retired deputy superintendent. The vice chairwoman will be Lisa Delpit, a researcher at Morgan State University who recently won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work on "multicultural" curricula.

The task force will work with a budget of $50,055, of which about $14,000 will go toward hiring two consultants, Asa Hilliard of Emory University in Atlanta and Molefie Kate Asanti of Temple University in Philadelphia.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad