Freshman Baltimore County Councilman Kevin Kamenetz sat on a tiny chair for 80 minutes yesterday in the stifling media center at Fort Garrison Elementary School, eating humble pie.
Facing 13 angry, but polite parents led by Principal Lois H. Balcer, the embarrassed young politician, whose district includes Pikesville and Randallstown, learned a painful political lesson:
When you get 50 letters written by second-graders from one of zTC your home district's most prestigious, parent-involved schools urging you not to cut the education budget, it's risky to use words like "highly offended" and "disgraceful" to describe your reaction.
Mr. Kamenetz used those exact words in an interview last week to characterize what he thought the letters represented -- an attempt to use children as tools to help the school board discourage council cuts from the $608 million school budget request.
The council sliced out $4.4 million -- the biggest council cut from the education request since 1976.
"Our community was shocked," Ms. Balcer said.
Marilyn Scherr told Mr. Kamenetz that her daughter Melissa, 7, isn't often tuned in to current events, but she knew why she wanted the school budget left intact. And, she knew who she wrote to about it and what he said about her letter.
"Her feelings were really hurt," Mrs. Scherr said. "You have devastated her."
"My kid's going to live, but your name is down the tubes," Ira Fedder said.
Principal Balcer and PTA president Barbara Einhorn explained that at Fort Garrison, children have been encouraged for years -- and sometimes receive assignments -- to write letters to public figures and celebrities, including the president.
Some of those letters, the principal said, helped get the new school addition that is under construction. They also helped Fort Garrison outscore other county elementaries on the new state school performance tests, partly because one test involves "writing a letter to persuade."
A father, Ralph Cohen, told Mr. Kamenetz that parents and children at Fort Garrison know that although the County Council said it was cutting administrative and employee benefit funds, they really weren't.
"We all know it's not true," he said, noting that the council has no line-item control over school spending, and can only cut funds from broad budget categories.
He said the letters were based on that understanding, and the fear that the cuts will somehow filter down into Fort Garrison's aging classrooms.
Mr. Cohen also said that the real problem is a lack of outside control of the school budget. "I believe that there is a lot of waste in the school budget," he said.
"I made a tremendous miscalculation," Mr. Kamenetz said, in one of his several apologies. "We all want the same objectives."
He said his remarks were the ill-conceived result of frustration after a long struggle with school officials over their budget.
"Of course we want to fully fund the education budget," he said. "Of course we want more teachers. My mistake here was to transfer my anger and frustration over our inability to control the school budget into that one quote."
Mr. Kamenetz said he would do anything he could to make amends.
"On the Maryland political aptitude test, I got a zero here," he concluded. "Next year, I'll take the test again."
The Democratic councilman has a lot at stake. He received 1,719 votes in the Fort Garrison area in November, his second-best precinct, to Republican Jacqueline A. Fleming's 266.