Despite angry attacks from parents and teachers, the president of the Baltimore school board continues to dodge a vote on whether the city should shut schools for a week next month to save money.
The latest clash came last night, when the chief of the Baltimore Teachers Union launched a blistering assault on the board for failing to take a stand on the issue.
"How can you sit idly by and allow this to happen?" demanded Irene B. Dandridge, president of the 8,500-member BTU. "How can you continue to maintain this pretense that this board has any impact or any role to play? How can you even pretend you are a part of the process?"
She said the time may be right for an elected -- not appointed -- school board, which "might have the courage to stand up and champion the rights of the students in Baltimore City."
"Until that happens, I think that we will continue to be dumped on by the public, by the legislators and by our peers around the state," she declared.
Her statements to the school board followed an emotional meeting at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where hundreds of disgruntled teachers discussed their opposition to the furlough.
But the union leader's bitter critique drew scant response from school board President Joseph L. Smith, who is serving at the pleasure of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke along with the other members now that their terms have all expired.
It is unclear whether a board vote could keep the furlough from happening because the mayor controls the budget. But many teachers and parents believe the board should send a strong message anyway in the hope of persuading the mayor not to close schools one week next month to save money.
The shutdown is the most drastic budget-cutting measure in the school system's history.
Smith said the shutdown proposed by the mayor is part of the city's broader efforts to relieve its budget problems. That effort is at a delicate stage, he said.
"We are working in cooperation with the mayor and other people," said Smith, who stressed that the board cannot raise funds on its own. "I'm not going to do any premature things until we get a clearer view."
Smith said after the meeting that a vote against Schmoke's school-closing plan could be counterproductive, arguing that the mere threat of a closure has focused the attention of state legislators on the city's plight.
"I am not taking a vote while I am working with the mayor," he said. "I am not about to undercut his efforts to get some funds."
Meanwhile, the mayor and school department are steaming ahead with plans to close schools the week of Feb. 17, which begins with the Presidents' Day holiday.
The closure, which is expected to save $7.5 million in salaries and operating costs, is part of the school system's attempt to cut $11 million from its fiscal 1992 budget because of reductions in state aid to the city.
Under that plan, school workers would be furloughed for five days without pay.
City Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said a formal notice to parents is expected to go out next week. The school department has dubbed the closure "Independent Study Week" and plans to give students home-study packets to use during the shutdown.
The plan could put the city at odds with state law, however, which requires a minimum 180-day school year. The state Board of Education is on record as opposing any exceptions to that rule for budget reasons.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick met with the mayor yesterday to discuss the issue, but said last night that there was apparently no change in Schmoke's plan.
Parents have criticized the plan as disruptive, warning of problems for working parents unable to make accommodations for children.
They and the teachers' union also argue that the shutdown will hurt the education of children in a school system that has serious performance and resource problems.
Only the city's unionized principals and administrators have come out in support of the furlough, as a last-ditch budget measure.