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Efforts to rescue struggling districts center on takeovers

Sun Staff

Facing bankruptcy or plummeting test scores, more than 40 school districts nationally have been taken over since 1994 - and while parents are often outraged, school systems have sometimes received a boost from educational reforms and tighter financial controls.

"This is a really a new trend, with more and more states, and sometimes cities, realizing that they can't just stand there and do nothing, while school systems fail," said Kenneth K. Wong, professor of education at Vanderbilt University.

As Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and legislators consider imposing more state control over the chaotic Baltimore school system, they have a wide variety of examples to look at nationally. Some takeovers - like those in Chicago, Boston and Compton, Calif. - have won praise, while others - like those in Newark, N.J., and Oakland, Calif. - seem to have caused as much trouble as they solved.

Baltimore has been through this debate before, with a semi-autonomous city-state partnership taking control from the mayor's office in 1997.

But in some cases, mayors have moved in the other direction. Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn in 1992 and Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in 1995 seized control of their school systems and improved education by consolidating power in the mayor's office and moving education higher on the list of city priorities, educational experts said.

In some cases, governors have appointed administrators to force urban systems with declining enrollment to close schools, reform bureaucracies and cut salaries - moves that are necessary, but would be politically difficult for local school boards, experts said.

Sometimes state takeovers backfire when reformers are perceived as high-handed and insensitive to urban populations, said Paul Tractenberg, professor at Rutgers University School of Law in Newark.

New Jersey took over the academically struggling Newark school system in 1995 and appointed an administrator with broad powers. The administrator shook up the bureaucracy, but created more financial chaos and only modest educational gains, Tractenberg said.

"The state came in with its champion to run the system and an attitude of 'kick out all the bums who didn't do it right' - but it tended to be unrealistic, and demeaned the local people, creating hostility and resentment," said Tractenberg.

California's limited takeover of the Compton public schools was much more successful because the state officials were perceived by local parents as less arrogant and more sensible about the needs of urban schools, Tractenberg said.

The Oakland, Calif., school system, like Baltimore, had seen rising test scores. But in August 2002, administrators discovered a $20 million deficit when administrators installed a new computer software system to better track debts. But the number ballooned to more than $80 million as officials discovered more bills.

In return for a state loan to stave off bankruptcy, the state installed administrator Jack O'Connell in May 2003. He instituted a 4 percent pay cut for the 7,000 school employees, revoked cell phones from administrators to save money, laid off about 100 custodians and announced the closings of five schools.

"The administrator makes it very clear that he's making the decisions, and that his decisions are not accountable to public opinion," said Gary Yee, a member of the Oakland school board.

The Chicago School system went through a state takeover to stave off bankruptcy in 1979, and then a city takeover in 1995.

In an attempt to improve academic performance, Chicago's Mayor Daley seized control of the school system in 1995 from a state-appointed board, instituting reforms that helped spur impressive rises in test scores, Wong said.

In Boston, then-Mayor Flynn and the state took control of the city's school system away from a 13-member elected school board in 1992 and gave control to a seven-member committee appointed by the mayor. The move ended years of deficit spending, said John Portz, a professor of political science at Northeastern University.

"On the academic side, there have been some improvements," said Portz. "But the criticism by some has been that they are not as open to public comment and public debate and that decisions are now made behind closed doors."

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