Lida Lee parents fight 'elitist' image in campaign to keep school open

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ANNAPOLIS -- They put on a textbook effort to save the $500,000 needed to run their school -- but the check is not in the mail.

Gov. William Donald Schaefer's 2,000-page budget carries the name Lida Lee Tall Learning Resources Center. But no dollar figure follows the name. No budget request has been made.

So parents and other supporters of the Towson school went to work to save what they insist is a resource of extraordinary value tothe state. They honed their arguments. They recruited allies in politics and business.

They even admitted they had been less assiduous than they might have been about "exporting" to other schools the lessons learned at their school -- the institution's primary reason for being.

They needed every bit of evidence they could find.

Although he has made education a high priority of his governorship, Mr. Schaefer saw the 125-year-old institution as expendable. Never mind that children at the school read and compute at levels far beyond their grades and years -- and far beyond the state average.

Difficult and painful decisions had to be made in the budget-making process of 1991, say aides to the governor, and this school may yet languish and expire along with other worthy programs that government must abandon at least temporarily this year.

Mr. Schaefer heard the lamentations of many in a year when he faced a deficit of several hundred million dollars. Many made compelling arguments. In some cases, the governor took extraordinary measures to find money. In some cases, he relented and reinstated programs.

In the case of Lida Lee Tall, though, he refused to listen to the parents' appeal.

The line had to be drawn, his aides said.

So the governor did not hear the story of Doris Gray, the mother of a 19-year-old Lida Lee Tall graduate.

"Ten years ago," Mrs. Gray said, "no one could have convinced me that my daughter had the potential to become a doctor. Today, she's a sophomore at Clark-Atlanta University, majoring in biology and hoping to go to medical school.

"Donita has all of the equipment she needs to become whatever she wants to become. Donita knows how to read, and she learned how to read at Lida Lee Tall."

A fine testimonial, to be sure.

But not enough for this year. This year, the standard of proof is higher than it has been in a decade.

The legislature has decided, for example, to stop publishing Maryland Magazine, though almost everyone agrees it has been a useful vehicle for promoting Maryland as a place to do business and live.

The Statewide Nutrition Assistance Program has been terminated. With a quarter-million state dollars, SNAP made grants to food kitchens whose ability to serve people was sometimes interrupted when delivery trucks or refrigerators broke down.

A program allowing bereavement leave for inmates of state prisons was terminated.

An oyster replenishment program was dropped.

What could be said, then, on behalf of an experimental elementary school that arguably could be closed without inflicting much pain -- unless sending children to public school involves pain that a handful of Marylanders should be able to avoid.

The governor's aides argued that Lida Lee Tall children were getting what amounts to a "freebie for the middle class."

The parents replied that 33 percent of the students at the school are African-American, 12 percent from other minority groups. Twenty percent of the students are on full scholarship. More than 70 percent come from Baltimore.

But the administration's argument found at least a few adherents in the assembly -- some of whom suggested that any school could succeed if it had the parental commitment and public resources of a Lida Lee Tall.

"What are we doing for Charles County?" demanded Delegate Stephen J. Braun, D-Charles. He referred to Lida Lee Tall as "a special little school that does well for a small bunch of kids and the hell with the rest of us."

Delegate John S. Morgan, R-Howard, agreed that the school's parents appeared "a little elitist" when they testified before his Committee onConstitutional and Administrative Law.

But he said the school is important and not just because of the parents or their children.

"This is a very, very important teaching resource -- allowing student-teachers to go into a classroom that works," he said.

On other programs threatened by the economic downturn this year, Mr. Schaefer relented -- and, in the end, that has become a problem for the parents of Lida Lee Tall. Having been accused of flip-flopping on various matters, Mr. Schaefer might be unwilling to waffle again.

If that is so, the parents have wasted a lobbying campaign designed with considerable knowledge of Mr. Schaefer's "hot buttons."

The newly refocused Lida Lee Tall would have a math-science emphasis reminiscent of Mr. Schaefer's so-far failing effort to create a math-science high school in Maryland.

The school also would have an entrepreneurial program based skits and stories from businessmen. The governor is big on business development.

But the parents may have delivered their most telling message to the executive when they agreed to increase tuition by 50 percent. Already, they kept pointing out, they pay about $1,100 per child. Their additional commitment would come to more than $82,000 a year.

After the parents voted to pay more, the school's teachers voted to impose on themselves a 7 percent salary cut, amounting to another $30,000 a year.

When the bottom line was reached, says parent Frank Morgan, the state was going to save no more than $100,000 by closing the school -- a small savings achieved at high cost, he suggested.

All of these arguments are being advanced now by sponsors of a bill that could save the school despite the governor's action.

Delegate Howard A. Rawlings, D-Baltimore, is sponsoring a bill that would save the school "subject to the availability of money in the budget." A similar bill is pending in the Senate under the sponsorship of John A. Pica, D-Baltimore, and F. Vernon Boozer, R-Baltimore County.

Mr. Rawlings says he chose to defend this program among the many endangered this year because a school is a place to prepare for the 21st century.

The other programs, he said, "can be closed down for a year and you can come back to them quickly. Once you close Lida Lee Tall, it's gone forever."

Among those who have endorsed Lida Lee are the University of Maryland business school, Johns Hopkins Hospital researchers and the Greater Baltimore Committee.

More convincing remains to be done, however.

"It's one of those motherhood and apple pie things. No one ever wants to do away with anything," said Delegate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County. "But if it's going to survive, it's going to have to have a major mission."

Last Friday, the Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law deferred a vote on the issue while it sought more information.

Cost-cutting moves

Some cuts made by the Schaefer administration this year:

WATERMEN'S COMPENSATION PROGRAM: Eliminated. The program compensated watermen for commercial losses associated with the ban on rockfish fishing.

Savings: $200,000 (fiscal year 1992)

VICTOR CULLEN CENTER: Closed. The Frederick County center treated people with developmental disabilities.

Savings: $2,314,587 (fiscal 1992)

HOME MAINTENANCE AND REPAIR PROGRAM: Cut. The program makes matching grants for minor repairs to homes of low-income and disabled homeowners.

Savings: $341,923 (fiscal 1992)

TAIWAN OFFICE, DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC AND EMPLOYMENT DEVELOPMENT: Consolidated. This office's trade activities are being merged with the state's Hong Kong office.

Savings: $124,918 (fiscal 1992)

STATE PARKS: Closed temporarily. Eleven state parks were shut down from Jan. 1 through June 6.

Savings: $178,000 (fiscal 1991)

DRUGGED DRIVING LABORATORY: Opening delayed. The lab would analyze blood samples taken from suspected drugged drivers. It was put on hold until mid-1992.

Savings: $1,267,900 in fiscal 1991; $326,453 in fiscal 1992

m Source: Department of Budget and Fiscal Planning

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