Schmoke exits talks with Baltimore charters, district

Mediation between Baltimore charters, school district 'no longer a productive process,' former mayor says.

Talks to prevent a legal battle between the city school system and its charter schools fell apart Tuesday when former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who had been selected as a mediator, withdrew from the effort.

Schmoke determined that the talks were "no longer a productive process," said a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. The mayor had asked Schmoke to mediate after charters filed suit alleging that the school district is not providing the legally required funding.

Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said Schmoke "believes that the parties would probably benefit more from court-ordered mediation instead of the voluntary conversations that he's been trying to facilitate. ... The mayor is deeply appreciative of Mayor Schmoke's time and efforts."

Schmoke did not reply to a request for comment.

Rawlings-Blake announced last month that Schmoke, an attorney and president of the University of Baltimore, would serve as an unofficial mediator between the parties in an attempt to come up with a funding formula that both could accept.

Since then, the district has withdrawn a funding proposal that would have reduced the budget of several charter schools, and more charters have joined the lawsuit.

Documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun showed that district and charter leaders had come to an impasse over the terms of the discussions that Schmoke was to facilitate.

In a letter to Schmoke outlining conditions for the talks, the district called for charters to dismiss their lawsuits with prejudice, meaning that they could not refile them even if there were no resolution through the talks. The district said the charter schools' offer of a 60-day suspension of the legal process was insufficient.

In the charter litigants' letter outlining their conditions, they called on the district to publicly provide information about its expenses — down to vendor contracts, third-party audits and internal accounting documents.

Libit said Schmoke told the mayor that "road to compromise is rarely straight and often bumpy," and that he would be willing to re-engage the leaders in talks should they make further progress.

City school officials said in a statement that they plan to proceed with their response to the lawsuits, which is due this week.

"In light of the determination that facilitated discussion would not be productive, city schools will respond to the legal action brought by charter operators," the statement said.

In a separate statement, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton said he was "disappointed that resolution hasn't been possible."

The charter litigants — 14 of the city's 34 charter schools — declined to comment.

But Stephanie Simms, interim executive director of the Maryland Alliance for Public Charter Schools, said the group was disappointed with Schmoke's withdrawal. The alliance is not a litigant in the suit, but represents all of the district's charter schools.

"It is discouraging that the school system has not put forward a formula that complies with Maryland's charter school law, and has refused to accept the [14] schools' offer to stay the lawsuits in return for a good-faith mediation process that includes the system opening its books," Simms said.

Several city leaders expressed disappointment that the effort to settle the funding dispute out of court had come to an end.

The issue has divided the city school community, with charter and traditional school parents and educators sparring over whether the charters' legal course is in the best interest of equitable funding for all Baltimore public schools.

City Councilman Bill Henry, a parent of charter school students, introduced a resolution calling on the district to withdraw its proposed formula. He said Tuesday that he has not heard a compelling reason why the district is demanding the dismissal of the lawsuits, let alone with prejudice.

"I think this is more about pride than prejudice," said Henry, vice chair of the council's Education and Youth Committee.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the committee, said that the failed talks are a step backward and that she had hoped they would reveal whether the system could provide more financial support to all of its schools.

"We need to know where the money is, so we can plan accordingly," Clarke said. "We'll have to bear it together, as a community, through the good and the bad."

In September, charter operators filed a lawsuit alleging that the district is not providing enough aid under state law, which calls for them to receive "commensurate funding" to traditional schools.

The charter schools are supposed to be funded under a formula that gives them cash in lieu of services they do not receive from the central office. In practice, charters generally receive about $4,000 more per pupil than traditional schools.

The school system, under Thornton, recently said the formula is not equitable or affordable and proposed a new formula under which all city schools would get more funding for serving certain populations, such as students from low-income families and those learning the English language.

For years, the district and charter leaders have negotiated around the law, which both sides have acknowledged has shortcomings. But charter leaders said the most recent formula change reflected an ongoing issue of transparency.

In their lawsuit, the charters said the school system "from year to year arbitrarily presented charter school operators with take-it-or-leave-it" funding levels "derived using varying, or no, calculation methodology, inflated estimates of overall system enrollment, and unsupported and dubious financial and budget figures."

Charter litigants have also expressed concern about the district's repeated assertion that they had agreed to drop their lawsuit when the district withdrew its funding proposal. Charter leaders have said they agreed to no such thing, and the statement has been a point of contention in recent weeks.

Councilman Brandon Scott said Tuesday that he hopes the parties can move forward without ultimatums.

"We can't live in absolutes," he said. "What we have to do is put aside our personal feelings and at least come to the table to figure out what's best for our children because that's who loses out."

In a letter to Schmoke, district officials said they believe that dismissing the suit "is integral to the success of the pending facilitation." And after careful consideration, they did not believe a 60-day stay was an "acceptable course of action as placing the cases on inactive status does not address our concerns."

The district emphasized that it wanted the discussions to be public and asked for the specifics of such a format. And officials expressed concern about who would be at the negotiating table, noting that "the charter participants do not represent all charter operators."

In his capacity as facilitator, Schmoke had proposed to have the case placed on inactive status for 60 days, which would "avoid having either of the parties comment on the status of the litigation," and "further the most important goal, moving forward with the discussions of information which will benefit programs affecting the children of Baltimore."

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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