Business group impatient with effort of city schools


Baltimore's business community is fed up with the school system's intractable performance problems, the president of the Greater Baltimore Committee told the State Board of Education yesterday in a rare public outburst.

Abandoning the group's traditional support for the school system, GBC President Robert Keller told the board that if education in Baltimore doesn't improve, the business community may have to start pushing for "dramatic alternatives," such as a state takeover of city schools.

"There is no longer an open-ended commitment" to city schools, Mr. Keller told the board. "We're just tired and dispirited. We're hanging in there, but I can't tell you for how long."

Baltimore schools have been criticized for an impenetrable bureaucracy, below-average test scores and high dropout rates, among other problems.

GBC first advocated state takeover as a last resort in a report issued in January.

In the report, the committee called for the school system to choose an improvement plan and give it five to 10 years to work. It also called for raising state funding for city schools to bring them to the level of surrounding counties.

The report marked the beginning of a shift in strategy for the group, which has avoided public criticism of the school system.

"Traditionally we have worked within the system," said the GBC deputy director, Jeffery Valentine. "Increasingly, we are beginning to recognize we need to fundamentally change that system."

Mr. Valentine said yesterday's declaration did not signal a withdrawal of support by the group, which funds and operates projects in city schools, including Baltimore Commonwealth, a business-school partnership aimed at helping students go on to college and find jobs.

"If anything, we want to be able to go out and raise a clarion call to our members to redouble our efforts," Mr. Valentine said. But "it's going to be harder for us to maintain the level of commitment from our members unless we begin to show a trend toward improvement."

Mr. Keller said the comments do not constitute an ultimatum -- just a warning.

"We're not setting a hard and fast deadline," he said. "What we're saying is, it's time to shape up. . . . This is essentially serving notice that the individual businesses and the business community are beginning to lose patience."

The group's new posture drew strong reaction from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, whose own frustrations with the school system bureaucracy have prompted him to meet with principals, teachers and parents, and to even launch a pilot school reform project in the Dunbar neighborhood.

"I am shocked that anyone from the GBC would at this time suggest a state takeover of our schools," Mayor Schmoke said through a spokesman.

"Comments like these divert attention away from the real problem, which is constant underfunding caused by a state financing formula that is unfair and in need of reform," Mr. Schmoke said.

Frustration over underfunding, meanwhile, has driven a band of Baltimore legislators to come up with their own solution: disbanding city schools to force a state takeover.

Their bill, introduced in the House of Delegates on Monday, is not expected to pass. But its sponsors -- Democratic Delegates Paul E. Weisengoff, Clarence Davis, Anne S. Perkins and Elijah E. Cummings -- hope that it will stimulate debate and even extra dollars for Baltimore's schools.

"There is no enthusiasm among the leadership down here to get the kind of money we need," said Mr. Weisengoff, the bill's sponsor.

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