King Day switch likely; Carroll school panel expected to restore holiday for pupils; 'The idea was terrible'; Original action drew loud accusations of racism, insensitivity


The Carroll school board, reacting to intense community pressure, is expected to vote today to restore the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday for students.

Three of the five board members said yesterday they plan to reverse last week's decision to eliminate the holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader. A special board meeting will be held at 3 p.m.

The board's unanimous vote to keep pupils in school on the holiday triggered a wave of criticism from Carroll's small African-American community and others, who accused board members of insensitivity and racism.

Carroll would have been the only Maryland school system to require pupils to attend classes on the King holiday.

"I believe we have a very forgiving community, and once the decision has been changed I think we can start moving forth," said Phyllis Black, a consultant hired by the Carroll school system to help recruit minority teachers and a critic of the school board's action.

Superintendent William H. Hyde interrupted a protest rally at school offices in Westminster yesterday to announce that the school board planned to reconsider its decision.

His message was greeted with cheers of "Amen" and "Praise God" from about 40 people -- including children -- who were marching and carrying signs that read: "Martin Luther King was an Important American" and "Respect Civil Rights: Rescind the Martin Luther King Decision."

Valarie Mares, an Eldersburg resident who organized the rally, applauded the announcement.

"I think this has raised their [board members] consciousness," she said. "They need to know that what they do is going to affect the community."

State Treasurer Richard N. Dixon, who served as Carroll school board president from 1975 to 1977, said he was relieved to hear of the decision to restore the King holiday. Dixon said he had been out of town and didn't learn of the action until last weekend, when Hyde called to seek his opinion.

"I told him the idea was terrible, and it should be changed immediately," he said. "It sends the wrong message, particularly in Black History Month, to do something like that. It's completely out of step with what's going on today, and we should not be standing out like a sore thumb in opposing it."

Members of Carroll's African-American community vowed to become more involved in school board business.

"We are in the midst of a struggle here," said the Rev. James E. Hinton, pastor of Union Memorial Baptist Church in Westminster, where 50 people, including representatives from Carroll's black churches, met last night. The group backed plans to have representatives at every school board meeting and to field a candidate in the next school board election in two years.

The board's decision to remove the King holiday from Carroll schools caught many people off guard.

"This is an emotional thing, and emotions are weighing out over school board factors," said board President Gary Bauer.

After consulting with other board members during the weekend, Bauer said he decided to hold a special board meeting to reconsider the issue of the King holiday instead of waiting until next month's board meeting.

"We've got bigger issues to deal with. We've got redistricting and the budget," he said.

Bauer and board members Joseph D. Mish and Ann Ballard said they will vote to restore the King holiday to next year's school calendar. It was unclear whether the board will also restore the Presidents Day holiday, which it also eliminated from the calendar last week.

Susan Krebs said she cannot attend the meeting because of work obligations, and C. Scott Stone could not be reached for comment yesterday.

"No matter how we come down on this, somebody's going to be unhappy," predicted Mish. "If we restore it, the blacks will say, 'Hurray.' Other folks will say they just did that to appease the blacks, and if we put both days back in, then they'll say we're wimps and we didn't have the courage of our convictions to stick with our original decision."

Carroll schools have been closed on the King holiday for teachers and pupils since 1988. The holiday was used as a professional day for teachers this year and last year.

The board members who decided to change their votes maintain pupils would be better served by going to school on the King holiday and learning about his achievements.

"My intention was for this to be a day to have students in school to observe Martin Luther King's birthday through knowledge," said Ballard. "Apparently, the community does not see it that way, and it's taken on a racial tone."

Critics said the removal of the King holiday contributed to the perception of an atmosphere of intolerance in Carroll, where minorities make up 3 percent of the population of 150,000. The uproar over the action could have been avoided, they said, if the school board had floated the idea in advance.

"The birthday of Dr. King is very special to all African-Americans in this country," Dixon said.

George Murphy, who urged the board at two previous meetings to close schools on the King holiday, said, "I just hope in the future they will listen more closely to us in the community who care about these broad issues.

"This did a lot of damage very quickly," he said.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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