State seeks a role in managing city schools

Sun Staff

The Maryland State Department of Education yesterday asked a federal judge to send state managers into several Baltimore school system departments, intensifying a power struggle over who will run the city's schools.

Under the state's plan, meant to address the problems in Baltimore's beleaguered special education program, the state would send eight administrators "to manage and direct" school system operations including human resources, information technology, guidance and transportation, plus a lead administrator. They would provide "ongoing daily direction, technical assistance and management oversight" for at least three school years under a plan submitted to U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who oversees a 1984 lawsuit over special education.

"We're not saying, 'We're tossing everyone out,'" state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said in an interview. "What we're saying is that there has to be some leadership. ... Hopefully, the people who are part of the permanent system could benefit from that leadership, and we could leave at some point with a functional system."

City school officials, meanwhile, argued in court papers and interviews that the plan amounts to a state takeover without that controversial title. They also criticized the state for proposing that the school system pay $1.4 million a year to cover the cost of state overseers, saying it would hamper their efforts to wipe out a crippling deficit.

"We're well on our way to completely eradicate our deficit by the end of [the upcoming school year] as long as we don't get more unfunded mandates," said school board Chairman Brian D. Morris, who called the state's plan an additional, unnecessary, layer of bureaucracy.

Under the state's plan, the lead administrator would be paid $170,000 a year, including benefits. The other eight administrators would be paid $150,000 a year each, including benefits. The remaining money would cover travel, supplies, and salary and benefits for an administrative aide.

Last month, as services to children with disabilities deteriorated in the wake of the school system's financial crisis, Garbis asked the parties in the lawsuit to detail how he might expand the state's authority, as Grasmick suggested he should do.

Two proposals

Last week, the state outlined two proposals. Under the first, and more severe, the judge would order an outside takeover of the system, meaning a court-ordered administrator would assume the authority of the local school board. Under the second, the judge would give the state the power to make changes in the system, working alongside the existing management and with the court resolving disputes.

In court papers filed yesterday, which was the deadline for the parties to respond to each other's proposals, the state asked Garbis to order the second option, saying it would bring changes faster than an outside takeover would and is necessary "to be sure that another school year is not lost."

City school officials argued that the problem with special education is chronic under-funding of the school system, citing a 2004 ruling by Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, who oversees a school finance case. Kaplan ruled that the state is hundreds of millions of dollars short of adequately funding the city schools.

As evidence that the problem is managerial and not financial, Grasmick pointed to more than $4 million in federal money for special education that the school system received last school year but did not spend.

Lawyers for students with disabilities, in their court papers, said control of the special education department, along with transportation, human resources and other departments that affect special education, should be turned over to an outside authority, not the state. They said the state's plan is "devoid of essential elements," including state accountability to the court and strategies for returning control to the school system.

The students' lawyers sued the school system and the state 21 years ago, alleging that students with disabilities were not receiving services to which they were legally entitled. The lawyers say conditions are as bad now as they were when the case was filed. They point to widespread teacher vacancies, huge class sizes and buses that failed to show up last school year.

Garbis' decision could have major implications for Maryland's gubernatorial race. Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has said the city schools are turning around, is expected to challenge Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the election next year. Last year, Ehrlich and O'Malley sparred over who would bail the city schools out of their financial crisis.

Grasmick offended

Grasmick, rumored to be a possible running mate for Ehrlich, said she is offended by the implication that the state's actions are politically motivated.

The state has argued that it does not have the authority to compel the city schools to adequately serve children. How much authority it does have is another topic of dispute.

In 1997, the city agreed to give the state partial control of its schools in exchange for increased state aid, in hopes of settling the special education suit and the school finance suit. From then on, the school board has been jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor, with the state education department screening applicants.

Grasmick said nothing in the legislation that created the "city-state partnership" gave the state control over the school system's daily operations. But Morris, the school board chairman, and board member Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman said the state's authority is substantial.

"The state is not at all an outsider," Morris said.

Yesterday's court filings highlighted the bitter relationship that has developed between the school system and the state education department.

Last week, the city said the state should be providing it with more training and support without taking away local control.

Yesterday, the state wrote that such a "cooperation model" is "certain to fail given the twenty-one-year experience with cooperative approaches tried through this litigation ... and the erosion of trust" between the state and the city.

Outside Maryland State Department of Education headquarters in Baltimore yesterday morning, about 15 teachers, aides and students protested the state's proposal at a demonstration organized by the Baltimore Teachers Union.

Protest leader Connie C. Goodly said the problems in special education would be solved with an influx of resources, not a change in management.

"We are going to fight to preserve local control," said Goodly, administrative assistant to the unions' presidents. "We don't want outsiders coming in."

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