2/3 TC ANNAPOLIS -- A proposal to privatize the troubled Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile delinquents moved a step forward yesterday when a Senate committee voted to abolish state jobs associated with the institution but not the money.
The Budget and Taxation Committee also recommended that Dr. Nancy S. Grasmick, secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, be given maximum flexibility in determining the school's future operation.
"The good people will find other jobs in the system, and the bad ones shouldn't find other jobs," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, D-Baltimore. "I don't blame the staff totally because a lot of them were hired to be jail guards for kids."
Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, who chairs the Budget and Taxation Committee, said yesterday's decision was the only way to bring about concrete improvements at the Hickey School.
"It really gives us a chance to go in, take a system that is disastrous, clean house and start from scratch," Senator Levitan said of his committee's decision. "We just think there is no way to fix this system other than clean house."
The Schaefer administration has requested $13.7 million in its budget for 396 jobs associated with the Hickey School.
Diane Hutchins, director of governmental relations for the department, said that if the General Assembly approved the committee's decision, the department would investigate its options for state employees. This could include layoffs or keeping the employees on a contractual basis.
"I know that there are options out there, and that would take some looking," she said. "This is certainly not meant as an effort to put people out of work. It's meant to make Hickey as good as it can be."
William H. Bolander, executive director of the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees' Council 92, called the committee's vote "devastating" and said it posed a threat to all state employees.
He said union members would discuss the decision at an executive board meeting tomorrow.
"This is something that our whole union has to take on as a crusade," said Mr. Bolander. "We feel the employees have gotten a bad rap from this whole thing when the real problem was the management."
A 16-member gubernatorial committee is examining the Hickey School's operations and is expected to make a report by late April or early May.
In making their decision, committee members cited a recent 20-page report by the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center that was harshly critical of the Hickey School's operation.
The report cited incidents of intimidation and instances where female residents were forced to urinate in cups and were handcuffed to their beds. "There is widespread evidence that staff physically abuse youth --hitting, wrestlking and otherwise inappropriately handling residents is common," the report said.
Yesterday, Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery, called the school "a disaster" and "an embarrassment to the state of Maryland."
Such criticism is nothing new for the Hickey School, a Baltimore County facility that houses about 300 youthful offenders. Reports of lax security, weak educational programs and unsanitary conditions have dogged the program for years.
But the report, along with recent testimony about the school, pushed the Senate legislators to take some action, said Senator Hoffman.
"One of the analysts said it's like something out of the Third World, and someone else said it was like the Alabama and Texas jails of the 1950s," said Senator Hoffman. "Anyone who reads that report will want to know why we waited as long as we did."
Committee members also said it was crucial that the Department of Juvenile Services have as much flexibility as possible in running the Hickey School.
"Right now, we don't know what they're going to do, but we need to give them the flexibility," said Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel.
Ms. Hutchins agreed that the department would need flexibility to improve the Hickey School.
"The department thinks Hickey can be improved, and we're willing to look at whatever options there are to improve Hickey," she said.