Carroll County school officials eliminated the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for pupils yesterday -- a move sharply criticized by local African-American and teachers union leaders.
The decision makes Carroll the only Maryland school system to require pupils to attend classes on the day honoring the slain civil rights leader.
Along with scrapping the Martin Luther King holiday, the five-member school board voted unanimously to keep pupils in school on what Carroll officials call Presidents Day, a day when many schools close in recognition of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.
Critics called the board's action on the King holiday a serious symbolic blunder in an overwhelmingly white county that is often perceived by minorities as an unwelcoming place. African-Americans make up less than 3 percent of Carroll's population of 150,000.
"I go all over the state and the thing I continually hear from people of color about Carroll County is that it is not a friendly place to go because the sense is that the county still reflects what Maryland was like a century ago," said Hal Fox, who represents Carroll County teachers for the Maryland State Teachers Association.
"I believe it's untrue," Fox said. "But the image is there, like it or not."
Ralph Blevins, president of the Carroll County Teachers Association, said the decision to eliminate the King holiday will hurt minority recruitment efforts.
"It's a giant step backward," he said.
Board members predicted their decision would be viewed as politically incorrect. However, they maintain that county students will be better served by learning about the historical figures recognized by the holidays, instead of spending their days at the local mall.
"I think if Martin Luther King were to walk into this room he would be appalled that kids were not being instructed in what he stood for," said board member Joseph D. Mish, who has frequently said pupils should be in school on the King holiday.
"Sooner or later, we're going to have 40 or 50 days on the [school] calendar to honor whoever comes down the pike," he said.
Under Maryland law, public schools must close on specified days, such as Christmas, Thanksgiving and Election Day. If local jurisdictions choose to keep schools open on other widely recognized holidays, they must devote part of the day to appropriate lessons.
The board's action comes at a time when Carroll's black leaders are working to restore a county NAACP branch.
"It's a shame," said the Rev. Robert E. Walker, of the board's decision. "It took too long for the country to come to the decision to even have a holiday."
Walker, pastor of Union Street Methodist Church in Westminster, said he isn't persuaded by the argument that pupils will develop a greater appreciation for King by being in school.
"If that's the rationale, why don't we have kids in school on Memorial Day to learn about that holiday and on Labor Day," he asked. "There are a lot of [King] activities that children could go to at different churches and events in Baltimore."
Officials from NAACP headquarters in Baltimore refused to comment on the Carroll school board's decision.
Steve Findeisen, a social studies teacher at Francis Scott Key High School in Uniontown, questioned the action.
"I know a lot of my colleagues tend to mention Martin Luther King and some of his attributes on the day after the holiday, even if it's something as simple as saying 'Why weren't you in school yesterday?' " said Findeisen, who noted teachers also discuss King during Black History Month.
The board's decision was unexpected.
In a proposed school calendar released in December and developed by school staff, schools were closed on King Day and Presidents Day for teachers and pupils.
In the past, King Day and Presidents Day were used as professional development days for teachers in Carroll, as is the practice in some other counties. Carroll community leaders and teachers union representatives had urged the board to close schools for teachers and pupils on King day.
"To make this significant a change at the last moment is an unacceptable way to conduct such serious business," Fox said.
Carroll educators have been aware of the obstacles facing minority teachers and pupils. Minority teachers comprise less than 2 percent -- 27 teachers -- among the district's 1,648 instructors.
Two years ago, school officials developed a plan to hire more minority teachers and encourage minority pupils in county schools to consider teaching careers.
Recruiters have increased visits to predominantly minority colleges, and in October, the schools hired a consultant to help new minority teachers adjust.
"The vast majority of citizens are nonracist, but the symbolism of this holiday carries a lot of significance," Fox said.
Mish said the board's decision to keep schools open on the other holiday as well sends an important message.
"I hope people perceive that we have not done this from a racist motivation but a sincere desire to let people learn about the teachings of Martin Luther King," Mish said.
That argument doesn't convince the Rev. James Hinton, pastor of Union Memorial Baptist Church in Westminster and an organizer of the NAACP effort.
"It means we are not totally desegregated," he said. "We should align ourselves with the rest of the state and the country, and observe the things King stood for by honoring his legacy."
Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.
Pub Date: 2/11/99