Schmoke's decision on schools is praised City's teachers hail move halting 5-day shutdown.


In the end, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke blinked.

Faced with irate parents and angry teachers opposed to his planned week-long shutdown of the city schools, the mayor backed off and decided to cut the pay of all city workers for five holidays, instead.

Politically, that decision appears to be paying off.

Even some of Schmoke's harshest critics praise the move, vowing to turn their guns on the state legislature in an attempt to shake loose more funding for the city.

"It's great, it's just wonderful," said Regina Franco, a parent and coordinator with the Parents Coalition to Improve City Schools, a group opposed to the shutdown. "It makes us feel that Schmoke listened to us."

Franco, whose group protested the plan in front of City Hall last month, said she believes the mayor responded to protests from parents, teachers and students themselves.

"It gives the children in this city a real good message," she said. "It tells them that people care about what happens to them."

Franco said her group would turn its attention to the political arena and protest the cuts in state aid that prompted Schmoke's proposal.

"We're going to continue to make it clear to the legislative body in Annapolis that they have to restore the cuts," she said.

And Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said her members prefer the city-wide cut in pay to a move that would hurt the city's 108,000 students.

"They don't like it, but they understand it, and they believe that it's much fairer now than it was before," said Dandridge, whose group had blasted the mayor and school board over the plan. "We have now got to turn that energy into work in Annapolis."

In his announcement yesterday, Schmoke insisted that he was "as serious as a heart attack as far as going through with closing the schools. I wasn't playing any games on that issue. . . . But the closing had become a diverting issue."

Schmoke said the fight over his school-closing plan had made enemies out of traditional allies in the battle for more funding for -- city schools. For instance, the Baltimore Teachers Union on Sunday ran a newspaper ad laying out its case against Schmoke's plan to close schools the week of Feb. 17.

Schmoke also was under pressure from the state school board, which had said it had no plans to grant the city a waiver from state law requiring school systems to have 180-day school years.

"There have been a lot of pressures," Schmoke said during a news conference yesterday. "But what I am trying to do is overcome an issue that was diverting us from the major issue, school funding."

Under his new plan, Schmoke will make up for a reduction in state aid by cutting pay for five holidays for all 26,000 city employees. "We're talking about the mayor, all elected officials, everybody who is employed in city government," Schmoke said.

The only exceptions will be employees who already have had their pay reduced this year by furloughs, Schmoke said. Budget officials said the plan will save the city $8.5 million.

Schmoke's decision won plaudits from state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, whose department had been on a collision course with the city over the planned shutdown.

"I really believe that the mayor has found a reasonable solution to this problem," Grasmick said.

Grasmick said the state, which had demanded but never received an official revised schedule from the city, was within a week of deciding whether to file suit to enforce the 180-school day requirement.

The city also could have suffered other repercussions from failure to adhere to the 180-day requirement, including loss of funds, an option Grasmick said was not seriously considered.

"I am elated that we could reach this decision, which I think speaks to forging a strong relationship on behalf of the children of Baltimore City, rather than an adversarial relationship," she said.

Grasmick also said the state has agreed to work closely with Baltimore school chief Walter G. Amprey to examine ways to cut red tape and complex reporting requirements involving state programs.

Several school department observers said Schmoke did the right thing by backing off.

"This was an issue that was dividing us, those of us who were children's advocates," said Dandridge, of the city teachers union.

Dandridge said her group will try to harness the energy of those who fought the shutdown and push for increased school funding. "We're going to go all out to see that this unfair treatment of underfinanced schools in the city and smaller jurisdictions is changed," she said.

Sheila Kolman, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, said the planned shutdown had become a political liability. "The wrong message was getting out -- people were distracted by the closing," said Kolman, whose group had supported the shutdown as a last resort.

She also said the episode may turn out to have a galvanizing effort on those who support the city schools. "There has been some coalescing of forces," said Kolman. "All of us now will stop wasting energy and invest all our energy in how to keep this from happening again."

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