Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke took a dangerous step when he became mayor: he promised to make Baltimore "the city that reads."
He committed himself to an extremely difficult, complex and expensive task -- a courageous but risky act for a man who had to stand for re-election in four years. And it was dangerous because it established a standard against which his actions would be judged. When, for example, budget problems led him to propose closing a number of branch libraries, he was promptly bashed with his own slogan.
Mr. Schmoke was again bashed when he said he would close schools for a week to save money -- and he deserved bashing. Now, the mayor has decided to keep the schools open, but his blunder will continue to haunt him.
In proposing the school closing, the mayor put himself on the opposite side of a number of groups that are his natural allies in the battle for more state aid to education: parents, teachers and the State Board of Education. He miffed legislators by telling those upset with the closing to complain to the state. And he damaged his own ability to appear before state legislators as a credible advocate for the needs of school children.
The mayor's reversal came just one day after advertisements appeared in this newspaper from the Baltimore Teachers Union sharply criticizing the Schmoke school-closing plan. While we have been quick to criticize teacher organizations in the past as slow to recognize the state's fiscal realities, the BTU deserves praise for its vocal actions in this instance.
City teachers, instead of being furloughed on school days (as they would have been if the closings had taken place), will now be docked pay for holidays or other non-teaching days. They will wind up with more work than if schools had been closed, and they will have their pay cut anyway. But union leaders say they are pleased with the way things turned out -- because it is best for the students. The BTU is to be commended for teaching the mayor a lesson about priorities.