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Backers argue for schools to stay open


Advocates for several Baltimore schools slated for closure began their formal pitch yesterday to keep them open, telling an administrative judge that the city school board's decision to shut the buildings was "arbitrary," "unreasonable" and "totally wrong."

During opening statements, supporters offered a snapshot of arguments they will use to try to stop the city from closing nine schools and transferring more than 2,000 children. Norma Washington, Maryland chairwoman of the nonprofit Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which is appealing the closing of the schools, told Administrative Law Judge James W. Power that school board members relied on "flawed reasoning."

She said many of the affected children would be sent to larger schools that would become crowded, hurting academic performance and leading to increased school violence.

Sally A. Robinson, associate counsel for the Baltimore school board, called the process leading up to the board's vote "long and thorough" yesterday and said that "many voices across the community were heard."

She said the school system is under a state legislative order to manage its facilities as efficiently as possible and that a shrinking student population has warranted the closings.

The school system has room for more than 130,000 students; about 98,000 are enrolled this year.

The appeals case will resume May 21. The judge has a June 11 deadline for issuing a ruling, which the state Board of Education will then consider.

The school board voted in March to close seven of its more than 180 schools this summer: Charles Carroll of Carrollton Elementary-Middle, Harbor View, Madison Square, Mildred D. Monroe and Park Heights elementaries, and Luther Craven Mitchell and Malcolm X primaries.

Edgewood and Lafayette elementaries are slated to close next year and in 2003, respectively.

Art Buist, a lawyer representing parents and children at Mildred Monroe, acknowledged that those arguing to keep the schools open face a "daunting" and "difficult" task, but "certainly not an impossible [one]."

He said he thought the school board's case, based on recommendations from an outside consultant, 3D/International, was solid the first time he reviewed it, but that he noticed flaws when he read it again.

"Things are not always as they appear at first," Buist explained.

The burden of proof rests with the appellants, a small but determined group of mostly nonlawyers who have more enthusiasm and commitment than they do knowledge of legal proceedings. A student at the University of Maryland Law School, Daniel Soeffing, is handling the appeal on behalf of supporters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, under the direction of a professor.

Soeffing said yesterday that 3D/International -- not the city school board -- determined which schools to close. He compared the board to a blindfolded driver relying on directions from a passenger in the back seat.

"No reasonable person would drive a car like that," he said.

Soeffing called some of the company's information "totally unreliable" and said company officials might have manipulated data to support "pre-determined" conclusions.

Duane Harris, president of Edgewood's parent-teacher organization and the grandfather of a first-grader there, also said the information the school system relied on was "flawed."

"Edgewood Elementary is not a liability to Baltimore City, it is an asset," Harris said.

The school board, he said, was not "decisive in its reasoning" to close Edgewood.

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