Mayor was convinced early that Golle firm deserved chance to run schools


For a mayor who has staked his political career on improving city schools, the idea of hiring a private firm to do the job might seem risky business. But Kurt L. Schmoke didn't see it that way.

The concept "never bothered me in the least," the mayor said matter-of-factly. What did concern him, however, was the fact that a "for-profit" company wanted the chance to manage several city schools. "To what extent was this driven by a desire to achieve educational excellence as opposed to achieving profits?" the mayor said he asked himself.

In conversations with the chief officer of Education Alternatives Inc., Mr. Schmoke became convinced that John T. Golle cared about children. "The overwhelming majority of time was spent on how this impacted students and how it changed the environment for teachers," Mr. Schmoke recalled. "I didn't feel the man was just trying to get into our pockets."

Since the fall of 1990, Mr. Golle has been trying to persuade Baltimore to give him a chance to prove that his company can make a difference in the education of its children -- as it seems to be doing in private schools in Arizona and Minnesota and, this year, in a Miami Beach public school. But it wasn't until last week that city school officials tentatively agreed to give Mr. Golle's firm that chance.

Mr. Schmoke -- who gave the go-ahead for school officials to visit one of EAI's showcase schools last spring -- admits that discussions with Mr. Golle's firm bogged down during the recent change of administration at North Avenue. When new school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey came aboard last summer, the EAI plan was among the items Mr. Schmoke asked him to review.

"He really became the champion for it," Mr. Schmoke said of the superintendent who visited one of the EAI schools while vacationing in Arizona last winter. "He really did a lot of investigative work on this himself."

So when Dr. Amprey held a news conference last Tuesday on EAI's plan to manage nine city schools, Mr. Schmoke said he "deliberately" stayed away. "I was simply trying to convey the message that this was the superintendent's property; he really has ownership," he said.

But there are others here who helped forge the way -- including the city's two school union presidents and the Abell Foundation, which paid the way for school officials to visit AEI schools in Minnesota and Miami Beach. Mr. Golle maintains that the deal struck last week was the result of "hundreds of meetings" over two years.

When assistant school superintendent Charlene Cooper Boston asked Irene Dandridge early last year to join a team visiting a private EAI school, the Baltimore Teachers Union president said yes. She had read about the unique program in an educational magazine.

Ms. Dandridge also had an opinion of it: "I didn't ever think it would work in Baltimore."

And while what she saw at the Minnesota school impressed her, it also made her skeptical about its application in an inner-city school system.

"It was a private school with a pretty much middle-class student body, with almost no minorities. I think I saw maybe two black kids when I was there," Ms. Dandridge. "And a parental body that was pretty much supportive. I said, 'Hmm, that's all well and good. What about public schools?' "

The EAI staff told her about the Miami Beach project, which would become the firm's first public school venture. When Ms. Dandridge returned to Baltimore, she called the teacher's union down there and learned of its support for the program.

Last May, Ms. Dandridge and Ms. Cooper Boston spoke enthusiastically of the program to the city school board. The school board, which already had launched a pilot plan to give 14 schools greater control over their own operations, also was in the midst of choosing a new superintendent to replace outgoing chief Richard C. Hunter.

Even so, the board agreed to move swiftly to study the Tesseract program. But it wasn't until late June that Dr. Amprey was named to the post and more than a month later -- on Aug. 1 -- when Dr. Amprey moved into the superintendent's office at North Avenue.

Before Dr. Amprey had officially taken over the post, Mr. Golle called to push the Tesseract plan.

"I think when Dr. Hunter was here there wasn't any real enthusiasm for making any changes," said Ms. Dandridge.

Mayor Schmoke had already told Dr. Amprey of his interest in the program. "I didn't think there was a down side," Mr. Schmoke said in an interview Thursday. "The children, the teachers, the community would not be harmed by this. If things worked as well as Golle said, those three constituents would benefit."

Mr. Schmoke said he "kind of removed" himself from the day-to-day discussions and told Dr. Amprey, "if he liked it, then to go with it."

Dr. Cooper Boston, the assistant school superintendent who first called Mr. Golle back in the fall of 1990, said she briefed her new boss on what had taken place during the 1990-1991 school year. Dr. Amprey wanted to know more himself and include his two new deputies in the process, she said.

While visiting Arizona during the winter, Dr. Amprey visited EAI's model in Paradise Valley. He was "very impressed" but realized the children came from affluent backgrounds.

From time to time, Mr. Schmoke said he would receive notes from Dr. Amprey on where he stood on the project, including seeking advice from city lawyers.

On May 18, a contingent of Baltimore officials visited the South Pointe Elementary School, located in an impoverished neighborhood in Miami Beach.

Ms. Dandridge was among them. She saw children enthusiastic about learning and "a group of happy, professional teachers."

On June 5, EAI and the city schools signed a tentative agreement.

In announcing the plan, Dr. Amprey emphasized that the school system was not giving up its authority over the schools or its employees and that the pilot project wouldn't cost the city any more money than it spends now to educate its students.

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