Baltimore Sun

Maryland to appeal ruling on schools

The State Board of Education voted yesterday to appeal a Baltimore Circuit Court judge's ruling that would pump millions of dollars immediately into city classrooms and ease the schedule for paying down deficits.

The board voted unanimously in a closed session to ask the state Court of Special Appeals to vacate the order issued Friday by Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan.

"Financial reform can't be separated from managerial reform," said Edward L. Root of Cumberland, the board president. "We don't believe more money is going to solve the problem."

Root said that the State Department of Education had seen "example after example of egregious behavior" on the part of city school managers, and that the mismanagement has continued under the schools' new administration.

To cut expenses, the city eliminated most of its summer school and increased class size, among other measures. Kaplan ruled that these actions were unconstitutional and that the city needs $30 million to $45 million this year to restore "educational opportunity."

But because the judge has no authority to order the General Assembly or City Council to appropriate funds, he provided an alternative source of money by increasing from two years to four the time the city has to pay down a $58 million deficit. Also, he suggested acceleration of state funding under the Thornton law. Between 2000 and this year, the state "unlawfully underfunded" city schools by $439 million to $835 million, Kaplan ruled.

'Unlawful underfunding'

In his 74-page opinion, Kaplan placed heavy emphasis on the "unlawful underfunding" of city schools, but he said he saw no reason for a major restructuring of the system's management. "The state cannot avoid its constitutional obligation to provide adequate funding ... by focusing on management deficiencies," Kaplan wrote.

Root disagreed. He said "some form of external oversight is a necessity," echoing an informal suggestion from state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick that the system be placed under a trusteeship.

Louis M. Bograd, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which represents plaintiffs in the 10-year-old case, expressed disappointment. "We thought Judge Kaplan was on the mark," Bograd said, "and we had hoped the parties in the case would come together, recognize the wisdom of the order and do the right thing for the children of Baltimore."

Bonnie S. Copeland, city schools chief, said she was "sad to hear" Root's criticism. "I think we have made tremendous changes in management this year," Copeland said.

She said the school system has instituted many of the changes that were called for in a consultant's report issued last year. She added that the system "had to have managed well to have kept within our budget."

Copeland noted, as did Kaplan in his ruling, that nearly all of the top administration has turned over since she became chief executive officer in July last year. "And so I am going to read the headlines coming from Judge Kaplan and be heartened that his perception of our situation is the one that I hold -- that we are making changes and we need to be given an opportunity to continue to be successful," she said.

At his weekly news conference yesterday morning, Mayor Martin O'Malley predicted that the state would appeal Kaplan's ruling. "I suspect that Dr. Grasmick did not get the results she had hoped for," said the mayor.

"When you ask anyone from the state side to take some responsibility for the shortcomings of the schools, they cut and run and claim they had nothing to do with it. When you ask them to take some responsibility for the short funding, they also act as if they never heard of it," he said.

Grasmick declined to be drawn into a personal feud with Copeland or O'Malley, saying she has a "good working relationship" with the chief executive officer. But it was clear that the eight-year-old, city-state "partnership" to operate city schools is severely damaged.

"I'm not sure it was ever a good, solid partnership," said Root, the state board president.

City reviewing matter

Baltimore, as another party in the school funding case, also may appeal Kaplan's ruling. Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler said the city has not decided whether it will. "We are still reviewing the matter. We are obviously gratified and agree with Judge Kaplan that the central problem is the state's failure to fund the system," said Tyler.

The city's Parent and Community Advisory Board wrote a letter to the mayor this week asking him not to appeal. Members of the parent group said they were "heartened" that their children would have more than a bare-bones budget this year.

"The responsibility for the inadequacies in the [system] has been appropriately determined ... and should not be appealed," wrote Kevin Slayton, chairman of the group.

At a city school board meeting Tuesday night, parents asked the board to begin readjusting its budget to reflect the $30 million more the judge ordered be put in the school budget this year. For instance, said Michael Hamilton, president of the Council of PTAs, the board should immediately lower class size.

School board member Kenneth Jones said it wasn't that easy. "We are very interested in complying with that court order, but we can't do it unilaterally," he said.

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.