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School for the Arts opens year amid controversies

Officials acknowledge probe into payroll practices

By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

9:54 PM EDT, September 2, 2011

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A rare air of controversy has marked the new school year at the Baltimore School for the Arts, with administrators disclosing this week that the school's payroll practices are being investigated.

The revelation comes as parents say they want to be included in decisions made at the school, citing the layoff of a longtime teacher last year as an example of critical decisions the school has made unilaterally.

"We've all felt that 'if it ain't broke don't fix it,' said Bob Cronan, the parent of a visual arts student, in an interview about staff cuts. "It wasn't until recently that we thought maybe we were mistaken. We're not saying that we want to make the decisions, we just want to be included. It made us think about what else we don't know or won't see coming."

In a email to parents Thursday, School for the Arts director Chris Ford welcomed parents to a new academic year with "unfortunate news," — saying that The Baltimore Sun had inquired about the school's relationship with parents and an audit of "pay practices."

Ford's email said that he was told by city schools CEO Andrés Alonso not to discuss the audit. When asked about the letter and other issues at the school, Alonso said in an email: "It's the best high school in Maryland. There's nothing else to say."

School district spokesman Michael Sarbanes declined to comment on a "pending investigation."

In a statement to The Sun last week, Ford said the district's lawyers contacted the school three months ago about pay practices and asked for some documents. "We've provided those documents. We look forward to the successful conclusion of this audit," his statement said.

Ford declined to comment on the nature of the audit, the pay practice being investigated or which documents were turned over to the lawyers.

For some parents, the recent events are a rare sign of trouble in what they consider an academic paradise for students. The new school year is an opportunity, they say, for a fresh start under a new administration.

The longtime head of the school, Leslie Sheperd, retired last year, leading to the promotion of Ford, a 30-year veteran of the music department.

Ford is facing fallout from the layoff of Kim Parr, a popular visual arts teacher who was let go last year because of budget cuts. Parr's dismissal — she was one of three staff members cut — spurred a student protest and backlash from parents.

"Everyone felt kind of helpless and sad that we had no chance to say that this teacher meant so much to us and made our BSA experience," said Allie Hobson, who graduated in June and credits Parr for her admission into a highly selective New York City arts college.

Parr had been with the school for 27 years and was teaching all grade levels at the time she was let go — a move that she said was made without expressions from the school of gratitude or sympathy.

"It's still a shock to me because I can't believe I was treated that way," Parr said. "It was strictly a business and administrative decision."

School officials said they offered Parr a part-time job, which she declined. She said she would have lost her salary, benefits and pension.

Ford defended the administration's efforts to involve parents, and said the staffing decisions were made in the best interest of the school when it, along with every other city school, was facing cuts.

In the future, Ford said, he intends "to talk to people about what the expectations of the budget challenges are, and what the priorities will be. And when decisions are made, they will be made in light of those conversations."

Ford said he will also solicit more advice in allocating funds from the school system. About 75 percent of the school's operating budget comes from the school system. The other 25 percent, more than $1 million a year, is raised from private donors, according to the school's website.

Alonso has promoted parental involvement as a pillar of his administration, and the district requires schools to involve parents in matters including choosing principals and forming school budgets.

"It was clear that what the system expects doesn't happen at the School for the Arts," said parent Kathy Pinto. "Those expectations come from North Avenue, but because BSA works so well, they've never looked at that."

Sarbanes, who oversees parent and community involvement for the school system, met with Ford recently to devise a new parent engagement plan. He said the school is unique because it is also governed by a board of overseers — including 11 parents — that is responsible for directing its programs, choosing its leaders and securing funds.

Ford said he took "very seriously what the district expects from us — I don't buy it all — but I take it very seriously. I'm very committed to this."

On Wednesday, he sent parents a revised plan, adding seasonal parent meetings and monthly "coffee with the director" meetings for parents to discuss school issues. Ford said he also will propose to the board of overseers that a parent advisory council be created.

Parents said they hope the new plan lives up to its promise, though they weren't consulted about it.

"We have high hopes for Chris Ford and the school," Cronan said. "And we realize our students' success is due to the success of the school. We just want to help that continue."

erica.green@baltsun.com