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School board's demise is comparatively gentle Disbanding: The Baltimore Board of School Commissioners is going out calmly. That can't be said about what happened at several urban school boards across the nation.


IT WAS LEGISLATED into existence 99 years ago to get ward politics out of education management. Now the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners is being disbanded in a political deal that will shift more management responsibility from city to state.

Arnita Hicks McArthur, board president and a member since 1989, is surprisingly calm about the partial state takeover, given that the board's failure to improve the operation of the schools is implicit in the court-approved pact that will establish a new, more powerful board appointed jointly by the mayor and governor. (In return, the city gets a very modest $254 million in extra state aid over five years.)

"Everything must end at one time or another," McArthur said the other day. She added that she was thankful Baltimore schools "won't be put under martial law," referring to recent goings-on in Washington. There, the congressionally created financial control board last month fired the school board and superintendent, replacing him with a retired Army general promising total reform.

Indeed, the gentle demise of Baltimore's unpaid citizens board pales beside what has happened to several of the nation's urban school boards during the past few years.

Chicago schools are operated by a chief executive officer and management team tightly controlled by Mayor Richard M. Daley. The old school board is gone.

Cleveland schools were put under state control by a court order last year.

The New Jersey Education Department seized control of the Jersey City district in 1989, of Paterson's schools in 1991 and of Newark's schools last year. All three school boards were disbanded, Newark's after a bitter court battle. All were replaced by governing bodies that presumably had more management "expertise" -- and more authority.

There is talk in Detroit, where Superintendent David Snead is hanging on for dear life, of replacing the school chief and elected board with an "authority" or "management team."

McArthur, 51, can see that trend in the Baltimore deal, too. The negotiators who worked out the agreement structured the new nine-member board by function. Four members must have administrative leadership skills, four must possess education expertise (including one in special education) and only one must be the parent of a city student.

The only educator on the current board -- she teaches Spanish and English composition at Baltimore City Community College -- McArthur could apply for one of the seats and says she'll think about it. But she sees a danger in the makeup of the new board. "While it's great to get people with expertise in certain areas, there will be a temptation to micromanage."

When the Board of School Commissioners is disbanded, with it will go the nearly century-old tradition of the citizen board whose members' primary motivation is "public service." Inherent in all of the urban management changes is the feeling that educators and mere parents aren't up to the job of managing complex organizations such as urban school districts.

"Can you imagine a physicians' board with a membership that's dominated by nonphysicians?" asked McArthur, who came to the board by the old-fashioned route -- mother of two and PTA president.

The irony is that the Baltimore board will be replaced just when it most perfectly reflects the district it serves. For decades, Baltimore mayors appointed the city's elite to the board: the Johns Hopkins University president, someone important from the University of Maryland and, well into the 1960s, an African-American or two.

Seven of the nine board members today are black, and there's not a household name among them. The president teaches at BCCC and the vice president, Charles Maker, is a retired human resources manager. Without members who can get the mayor on the phone day or night, the board lacks potency, especially in Annapolis.

"We'll keep doing our job the way we always have," said McArthur, "until somebody tells us to move over, and then we will."

Enrollment numbers down 2.3% at Maryland colleges

Factoids of the week:

Fall enrollment figures are out for Maryland colleges and universities, and they're down by 2.3 percent -- the largest decrease since the state Higher Education Commission began collecting statewide data in 1970.

Virtually all of the decline occurred among part-time students, which the commission said may be because many businesses are training employees in-house rather than contracting with colleges. Then, too, the commission analysis said, community colleges have raised tuition 23 percent during the past four years, making them "less affordable or attractive."

Pub Date: 12/04/96

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