The halls were spotlessly clean; the students' attention was riveted on their computer screens; the staff was relentlessly upbeat.
Almost to a person, the 20 or so members of the Maryland House of Delegates who toured two West Baltimore schools yesterday were impressed by what they saw.
But the delegates differed in what lessons they learned from the tour of the adjacent Harlem Park Elementary and Middle schools, which are among nine involved in the city's Tesseract school privatization experiment.
To city delegates, the tour was evidence that the school system could spend money innovatively and wisely -- and hence was deserving of additional state aid. To those from other districts, it demonstrated what improved management could accomplish -- even with current funds.
Tesseract schools, in the second year of a five-year contract with the private Education Alternatives Inc., operate under the same per-pupil costs as other city schools.
"It makes people aware of the impact spending money in the right ways will have on kids' ability to learn," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, D-Baltimore. "Everyone was struck by how the kids didn't pay any attention to us when we visited the computer labs because they were so focused on the computers."
But Del. Ellen R. Sauerbrey, R-Baltimore County, said, "I think it is going to send a strong message that before we spend more money, we need to take a close look at what we are doing with existing money."
Added Del. John A. Hurson, D-Montgomery County, "I wanted to see what the city school system can do with what money they have. They have quite a bit."
Del. Howard A. "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, recognized that the tour could cut both ways in any debate over school funding.
"I think the experience of the visit will inspire confidence that the school system can put money in the right direction. We also saw that a lot of what is taking place involves changing attitudes," said Mr. Rawlings. His staff organized the tour, part of a daylong series of events that included lunch with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and a hearing on the economic impact of state-funded projects on downtown.
School funding promises to be one of the key issue of the next session of the Maryland legislature. A 25-member gubernatorial commission is to make a report on the subject in November -- in time for legislation to be prepared for the General Assembly that convenes in January.
In June, Mr. Schmoke announced that he was dropping plans to file a lawsuit seeking to force the state to spend more money on poor school districts because he felt the Governor's Commission on School Funding could rectify the inequalities.
Per-pupil spending in Maryland in 1991-1992 ranged from $4,702 in Caroline County to $7,377 in Montgomery County, according to the most recent available statistics. Per-pupil spending in Baltimore was $5,182.
The city schools' annual budget is $617 million, of which $339 million comes from the state, according to city Budget Director Edward J. Gallagher.
School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey used a stop in the tour at one of the middle school's computer labs to point out the need for more computer stations in schools citywide.
"We have not made the commitment to more technology. We regard it as an add-on," he said.
Dr. Amprey was joined by teachers and administrators at the schools and officials of the Minneapolis-based Education Alternatives.
John T. Golle, president and chief executive of the company, told the delegates that the schools were able to make improvements by spending more money on education and less on administration.