Amprey may lose special ed duties


School Superintendent Walter G. Amprey would be stripped of his authority to manage special education services for 18,000 children in Baltimore as part of a deal being considered to forestall a threatened federal takeover of those programs.

Sources familiar with a long-standing federal lawsuit say a proposal is being reviewed by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis. A key element of the proposal is the hiring of an administrator with power to hire or transfer administrators and staff, contract for such services as therapy and testing, and alter class sizes when they hurt students with learning and physical disabilities.

The idea of the administrator for special education was proposed in March by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who intervened because of fears Judge Garbis had lost faith in Dr. Amprey's ability to give disabled children adequate education.

Dr. Amprey would retain control over other aspects of school administration, sources say.

Many details of the power sharing must be resolved, but the creation of what in effect would be a dual superintendency is viewed by many in educational circles as an "unorthodox" move with broad implications for the future management of the city schools.

Baltimore officials declined comment.

The restructuring plan -- filed in federal court Friday -- is one of several proposals aimed at convincing Judge Garbis that the schools will attempt to comply with federal laws protecting children who have learning and physical disabilities.

The action came a day after Judge Garbis signed a restraining order demanding that Baltimore school administrators stop interfering with the work of the court-appointed monitor for special education.

If Judge Garbis approves the proposed reorganization, it would be a milestone in the 11-year-old lawsuit.

City officials see any federal takeover of special education services as being tantamount to a takeover of all 182 schools because disabled students are interspersed throughout the schools. Baltimore schools have 113,428 students.

Past court orders have been much more limited, including assigning a monitor and a team of managers to oversee Baltimore's efforts to assess, aid and track the students.

In a district already dogged by allegations of mismanagement, stripping the superintendent's control over these expensive programs would be severe. The district expects to spend about $123.9 million for special education this school year.

"It is a drastic measure, but it is a terrible, long-standing problem," said Martha J. Fields, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

She said Baltimore officials need to clarify whether this solution is proposed as a short-term measure or as the intended long-term structure of the school government. "Will the system be able to maintain over time the improvements made by this arrangement?" she asked.

It would create an "unorthodox" management structure, said several child-advocacy and school-management associations. By making the new administrator report directly to him, Mr. Schmoke is putting his political fortunes squarely in the center of the controversy.

"It has a downside in that the mayor now assumes extra responsibility for the performance of the school system and the kids, which always has political risks," said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, which represents 50 of the nation's largest systems, including Baltimore.

Spokesmen for other educational organizations disagree over whether this setup is viable.

Only three or four districts nationwide have had two superintendents with separate duties, such as authority over finance or desegregation. And there are a few more that have special education services run by an administrator who does not answer to the superintendent.

Some cautioned that the children could be the losers in an administration having two leaders with parallel powers and potentially conflicting agendas.

"You are fragmenting the hierarchy of authority," said Kenneth Bird, former president of the national Council of Administrators of Special Education.

"It may be a legally and politically expedient way to deal with the issue of possible receivership, but it's also a solution that might cause problems."

Dr. Bird and authorities from some special education advocacy groups said the national movement supports mainstreaming, ending the separation of students with different needs -- and their management. Baltimore's proposed structure seems counter to that, he said.

"That type of dual track could create a situation that is competitive," Dr. Bird said.

For example, if a principal's students are earning improving test scores, presumably Dr. Amprey's domain, but the same manager is doing a poor job complying with special education laws -- the new administrator's domain -- what will happen? he asked.

Others said the proposed solution has many merits, especially if there are clear lines of fiscal authority.

It might not work in a town with an elected board and more divided powers, but Baltimore's arrangement of school government, with a school board appointed by and a superintendent approved by the mayor, lends itself well to the proposed reorganization, said Mr. Casserly.

"It seems to me like a perfectly viable solution," he said. "To the extent that the two parties can get along, it will work all the better."

Schoolchildren who are not well-served might just benefit, he added.

"Now they'll be able to compete and plead their case directly to the mayor. In some ways this gives them a leg up," he said.

Sources familiar with the lawsuit say many names have been suggested for the job, including that of Phillip H. Farfel, Baltimore's school board president. Mr. Farfel declined to comment.

The parties do not agree on the nominees. Baltimore school leaders prefer John L. Quane, an employee of the Chicago public schools whose background combines special education and computers.

He has been used as a consultant for Baltimore's tracking system for special education cases.

The state Department of Education and the lawyers who represent the child plaintiffs prefer Mark Mlawer, who has worked for more than a decade as a child advocate and is a member of the court-appointed oversight team.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs declined to comment.

The parties in the lawsuit will have 45 days to settle on a choice, if the judge approves the proposal. The judge must also approve of the selection.

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