Amid a shake-up of Baltimore schools expected to result in hundreds of layoffs and reassignments, a federal judge ruled yesterday that a court-appointed team must have some say in key staffing decisions.
U.S. District Judge Alexander Harvey II's ruling came in response to the latest volley in a decade-old lawsuit over the city's consistent failure to provide required services to thousands of special education students.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick had joined the Maryland Disability Law Center, a Baltimore-based advocacy group for the disabled, in seeking the order, which covers staffing decisions over the next year.
It requires that an oversight team consisting of Dr. Grasmick, city Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and Mark Mlawer, representing the law center, review all proposed staffing decisions involving posts above the rank of teacher. If at least two members of the oversight team agree a change would influence compliance with laws governing special education services, they would make recommendations on filling the slot.
Dr. Amprey would retain authority on staffing decisions, but they would not become effective for 10 days after he notified the team. During that time, any member of the team could ask the court to review the proposed decision.
The disability law center and state officials declared victory yesterday, saying the oversight team's role is crucial to ensuring compliance with laws governing services for the city's more than 17,000 special education students.
"The message to the superintendent is that he can no longer take unilateral actions on personnel issues," Mr. Mlawer said. "It affects his authority, and that's the chief message that needs to get across."
Valerie V. Cloutier, an attorney for the state Department of Education, agreed. She said many staffers outside special education programs have an effect on compliance, including principals, other supervisors and teachers who have some special education students in their classrooms.
Too often, she said, "Special education has been pigeonholed or compartmentalized and hasn't been viewed as having any relation with regular education."
Dr. Amprey declined to comment on the judge's order last night, saying he had not seen it. Efforts to reach attorneys for the city school system were unsuccessful.
The oversight team was created in April after the school system acknowledged, for the first time, widespread failings in special education programs.
Attorneys for the school system took a narrow view of the team's role in staffing decisions, though. Expanding that role, the school system had argued in court papers, could hamper the superintendent's ability to select and supervise staff, and could create confusion about his authority.
The team, which meets weekly, is charged with reviewing compliance with a 6-year-old consent decree, recommending changes in policy and ensuring that they are carried out.
At the heart of the legal battle is the city's failure to comply with federal law on the length of time handicapped students must wait for formal evaluations and services, including speech and physical therapy, psychological counseling and enrollment in special education classes.
Federal law requires that the city assess a child's needs within 45 days of referral and place a child within 30 days of development of an "Individual Education Plan." The city has consistently failed to meet both requirements, forcing some students to go without services and others to wait more than a year for services.