Baltimore school officials said Tuesday they will scrap a controversial proposal that would reduce funding to several public charter schools after University of Baltimore president and former mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed to step in to seek an agreement between the school system and the charters.
"Let's start over, hit the reset button," schools CEO Gregory Thornton told the school board Tuesday night. "Let's get proposals from our charter community, let's get proposals from me, and then let's work together."
Twenty-six public charter schools faced significant budget cuts under a revised funding formula proposed this month by Thornton. Five charter operators representing eight schools filed a lawsuit against the district last week, contending that it failed to lawfully fund the district's 34 charters. They said the plan would leave more than a dozen charters struggling to pay for books and teachers.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Tuesday that she asked Schmoke to bring the two groups to the table because of his legal and academic credentials, as well as his knowledge of the city schools landscape.
"He's an attorney, a former mayor, and he understands all the relevant issues," she said. "He knows the value of having a strong and diverse school system and a school system that is healthy. He's the right choice."
Schmoke's selection also stemmed from his experience mediating a dispute between Washington, D.C., and its teachers union in 2009 while dean of the Howard University law school, a University of Baltimore spokesman said.
"That inspired City Hall to ask him to do it," spokesman Chris Hart said.
Rawlings-Blake said she wants to see an agreement that doesn't "fund one group at the expense of another" and keeps classroom money from being diverted to a courtroom. She said she was "frustrated by the ongoing fighting between the school system and charter schools."
"My hope is that there's some agreement we can come to without the need for a lawsuit," she said. "I just don't think that we should be suing each other."
The move to bring in Schmoke and scrap Thornton's proposal comes after the City Council called on the school system Monday to equitably fund its charter schools.
Schmoke declined to be interviewed for this article.
School system spokesman Hassan Charles said Schmoke "will be a capable facilitator who's obviously demonstrated his commitment to city students." He praised Rawlings-Blake for bringing Schmoke into the conversation.
Bobbi Macdonald, founder and executive director of the City Neighbors Foundation, which supports several charters, said she was pleased to hear the proposal would be pulled but concerned about a lack of communication and transparency from the school board.
Thornton said his proposal had been intended as a starting point for discussions.
"To say you're beginning the conversation by closing 13 charters makes me question your leadership," Macdonald told the board during public comment. "That's one heck of a way to start a conversation."
Allison Shecter, founder and director of the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, said charter leaders hadn't been told the system would drop the proposal, that Schmoke was getting involved, or that discussions would resume.
"I'm glad to see the formula pulled, but there's a long history of difficulties with transparency and accountability with following the state formula," she said.
Shecter wasn't optimistic about the upcoming talks.
"We tried to discuss it with them before, and they refused to negotiate," she said. "We want to work in partnership with city schools to benefit all children."
As charter officials left the board room, they joined parents and students in the lobby of the school system's North Avenue headquarters, chanting "Hear our voices! Keep our choices!"
Monica Donnelly, who works at Montessori and whose three children all go to school there, called it "my whole family's anchor to the city."
"My kids get a world-class education and they get to engage and interact with kids from 26 different ZIP codes," she said.
Genevieve Doyle, a seventh-grader at Montessori, was one of several students who spoke in support of the charters.
"I love my school," Doyle, 12, told the commissioners. "It's terrible I have to protest for it to stay open."
Charter officials are planning a rally at 10:30 a.m. Saturday at Lake Montebello.