Baltimore would join a growing list of big cities without traditional school boards if plans for a partial state takeover of the school system were to reach fruition.
Starting in 1991, when Boston eliminated its elected board, traditional education panels have vanished in other cities, and the entire board in Newark, N.J., was fired when the state took over New Jersey's largest district in July.
In Chicago, Mayor Richard M. Daley has been handed unprecedented power over the $3 billion annual school budget and has turned day-to-day operations over to a chief officer and a team of administrators.
"This is direct political control," said Fred Hess, head of the Chicago Panel on School Policy, a nonprofit research and school advocacy group. "If it works here, it will be the new direction for cities."
The prospect that Baltimore might join the parade strikes school board advocates as a power grab by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who have been discussing such a plan secretly for several weeks.
Mr. Schmoke and Dr. Grasmick envision a city-state "partnership" that would improve management of the academically lagging system, settle two pressing lawsuits and bring an infusion of state aid.
The "concept" for Baltimore, Mr. Schmoke said Friday, is a
system run by a chief executive who is not an educator, a chief financial officer and a "provost" for academic affairs. Some sort of citizen board might be retained, he said, but in an advisory capacity.
"They can dress it up all they want," said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association, "but what's happening in Baltimore is a return to the bad old days when city councils and mayors ran the schools. School boards were literally invented to get away from that. That includes the one in Baltimore."
For years, Baltimore's Board of School Commissioners, which is appointed by the mayor, has been criticized as impotent, and Mr. Schmoke and his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, have dictated education policy on numerous occasions.
Two months ago, it was Mr. Schmoke who ordered an end to the city's contract with Education Alternatives Inc., and the mayor orchestrated from behind the scenes the hiring of Baltimore's last two superintendents.
"The city board is just not up to the task of running a three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollar enterprise," Dr. Grasmick said. "We need people with expertise, with a combination of attributes that will enable good decision-making."
Phillip H. Farfel, president of the school board, defended it. "We've tried not to micromanage; we don't think that's our function," he said. "But look at the accomplishments. Look at the Stadium School and citywide rezoning three years ago. It's checks and balances. That's what democracy is about."
Walter G. Amprey, the superintendent, agreed. "I've come to realize that, ironically, what we have here is an almost perfect way of doing things," he said. "The mayor calls the shots on the major issues, which he should. I work for him. When we were dealing with the snow, I deferred to him. He's the boss."
Mayors in New York City and Washington also want greater authority over public schools. Karen Shook, president of the Washington school board, cautioned that moving education affairs to City Hall "will cause parents to have to compete with pothole-filling and snow removal. School districts were created as special units of government because of the importance of children and education."
That's the point, said Mr. Schmoke, who has made improving the city schools the top priority of his administration. "If I can't get a handle on the public school problem, the future of the city is in jeopardy. I see education as the major responsibility of government."
An agreement to alter the management of the city schools would not be possible without the other side of the equation, the increase in state aid, Mr. Schmoke said. "I'm willing to concede there's a need for management improvement if the state concedes there's a need for additional investment," he said.
The mayor said the new funds would be invested primarily in teacher salaries, special education and staff training.
Mr. Shannon of the school boards association said eliminating the citizen board would mean "eliminating the educational conscience of the community." Of the argument that people with professional expertise are needed on school boards, Mr. Shannon said, "If that argument applies, what about the City Council? What about the mayor? These people want an authoritarian government."
Several attempts have been made to eliminate the school board or make it advisory. Former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns, former City Council President Walter S. Orlinsky and foundation executive Robert C. Embry Jr., a former president of the board, are among those who have called for stripping the nine-member panel of some or all of its powers.
In 1984, voters rejected a ballot question calling for an elected board in Baltimore. Ninety-eight percent of the nation's 15,350 .. school boards are elected, and 91 percent are financially independent.
All 24 Maryland school districts, whether their boards are appointed or elected, depend on county councils or commissions for operating funds. The resulting tension could result this year in legislation curbing the budgetary powers of the state's local school boards.
"We may have to live with this," said Susan R. Buswell, executive director of the Maryland Association of Boards of Education. "If we don't, we may get something worse. I often wish school boards had more political power.
"But they're important to our democratic system, and I'd hate to see Baltimore's board go. Education is something like the military, which we've never left exclusively to the generals to run."