Comparisons and contrasts

FUNNY HOW times change, and how they don't.

I covered the opening of city schools 30 years ago this month, and I played a small part in The Sun's coverage of yesterday's opening.


Plus ca change ...

Superintendent Roland N. Patterson in 1973 and Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland 30 years later faced severe budget shortfalls. Critics said back then that no one was minding the store. Sound familiar?


Improving the reading performance of city kids was Patterson's chief academic goal. He launched his program, called "Right to Read," shortly after his appointment in 1971. If city kids' reading performance did not improve in three years, Patterson said then, "The school board would be lax in its own responsibility if it let me remain."

Patterson was fired in the summer of 1975.

The starting salary of a Baltimore teacher just out of college was $7,750. This fall, it's $34,973. The Public School Teachers Association, which earlier in the summer of 1973 had dethroned the Baltimore Teachers Union as official bargaining agent, said it wanted to raise the beginning salary to $8,500.

Both unions staged a devastating monthlong strike in the early spring of 1974. Teachers weren't the only city employees to walk off the job in a particularly rancorous year for labor relations. So did garbage workers and police officers.

This year, with the BTU back in power, Copeland hasn't exactly been granted a honeymoon, but she's much more trusted by the school unions than Patterson ever was.

Baltimore was the ninth-largest school district in the nation and the largest in Maryland with 186,000 students. Today, it has about 94,000, half the enrollment of three decades ago and fewer kids than three other Maryland districts. Where did 92,000 kids go? Middle-class families fled to the suburbs, and birth rates declined.

Baltimore kids in the early 1970s were accustomed to split shifts and extended days. Class sizes were larger. But there weren't twice as many schools. The 184 schools of 2003 are only about six fewer than 1973. Copeland's problem is uneven distribution of enrollment.

The same month schools opened 30 years ago, Baltimore received a letter from federal civil rights officials that led to two separate desegregation plans. Those plans had to be imposed on a city that was segregated by race in its neighborhoods and schools. Much of the city was so heavily African-American that officials opted to tinker around the edges. They rezoned junior highs and "paired" several elementary schools, assigning primary grades to one school and upper grades to another.


Plus ca change ...

Three decades later, the city is more segregated, according a study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project. Copeland may be concerned about that, but under the current administration - and in the current climate - she's under no legal obligation to address imbalance.

If the mayor and top school officials made their annual opening-day tour of several schools in 1973, The Sun didn't cover it, and I don't remember it. Our reporter visited the William S. Baer School in West Baltimore, which was - and still is - performing miracles with physically disabled children.

This year's official entourage included the mayor (accompanied by his son), the chief operating officer, the state schools superintendent, the president of the school board, the City Council president and at least one City Council member. There must be an election coming up.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and Copeland walked arm in arm.

Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Patterson couldn't stand each other and, if either could help it, were never seen together.


Even baby sitters would get paid more

Here's a cut-down version of an e-mail making the teacher rounds as school opens.

Overheard at Burger King:

"It's time we put things in perspective and pay teachers for what they do - baby-sit.

"We can get that for less than minimum wage. That's right. I would give them $3 an hour and only for the hours they work, not any of that silly planning time. That would be $15 a day. Each parent should pay $15 a day for these teachers to baby-sit their children.

"Now, how many do they teach in a day? Maybe 25? Then that's $15 a day times 25. That's $375 a day. But remember, they only work 180 days a year. I'm not paying for Christmas or summer vacation. That's 180 times $375, equals $67,500.


"Wait a minute. My calculator must need new batteries."