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Md. fires a salvo in school dispute Amprey accused of mismanagement; reorganization sought


The state of Maryland threw a lawsuit over school funding back in the faces of Baltimore officials yesterday, claiming that the only way to improve education for city children is to order a "substantial, immediate restructuring" of the city school system.

In 11 pages of withering criticism of Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, the state said ineffectual management, not a lack of money, is to blame for the failure of city students to meet state educational standards.

"Without management reform, we have no confidence additional resources will benefit the children of Baltimore City," state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday.

The court battle began last December with the filing of a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, charging the state with failing to provide an adequate education for Baltimore's 113,000 public school students. The city filed its own, long-planned lawsuit against the state Sept. 15 in an attempt to wrest tens of millions of dollars more for its problem-plagued schools and to halt state attempts at reform. VTC Five low-performing city schools now are being run under close state supervision.

In firing back, the state sought yesterday to dismiss the city's suit and make city officials defendants in the ACLU suit, charging that city mismanagement actually kept Baltimore from getting as much money as it might have from the state. For example, Dr. Amprey failed to spend $11.9 million in federal and state funds for which city schools were eligible over the past three years, the state complaint charges.

How the massive restructuring called for by the state might be accomplished was an open question yesterday. Assistant Attorney General Evelyn O. Cannon, who filed the state's complaint, would not specify whether the state will ultimately ask the court to put the school system in receivership or take some other measure that would wrest control from its current custodians.

Dr. Grasmick, who has been feuding with Dr. Amprey for months over special education and other issues, yesterday called for "a comprehensive and substantive plan in a very short time" from Dr. Amprey.

She declined to comment when asked if she thought the city superintendent was capable of achieving reform, since most of the alleged management problems occurred during his four-year term as school chief.

Placing city schools in state receivership if management reform is unsuccessful "is one possibility," Dr. Grasmick said.

An 'unfortunate' suit

Dr. Amprey said he would leave detailed comment to the city's lawyers, but he called the suit "unfortunate, given the progress we've been making. I can only tell you that as far as urban 'D centers go, Baltimore has been identified as the one where schools are improving."

Baltimore Associate Solicitor Frank C. Derr said he had not read the state's motion and complaint yesterday. "We need to see exactly what the allegations are and then to investigate them," he said.

"Certainly the city administration and the educational administration have not been thoroughly deficient as the state is alleging." he said. "We could do much more, much more quickly, if we had the resources."

State officials also filed a motion to dismiss the city's suit yesterday, citing a 1983 Maryland Court of Appeals opinion that found the state's formula for funding schools met constitutional standards.

Ms. Cannon also argued that, procedurally, the city cannot sue the state.

In a lengthy section of the 21-page complaint, the state charged that Dr. Amprey:

* Failed to implement recommendations of a 1992 independent management study, which led to the General Assembly's withholding of $5.9 million from this year's budget.

* Did not comply with a federal judge's orders in a special education lawsuit, causing that court to order a special administrator and a management oversight team for special education.

* Neglected to develop and implement effective curriculum and instructional strategies throughout the system. Citing city students' poor performance on state tests, the complaint stated that nine Maryland districts perform better while spending less money per student than the city.

Dr. Amprey said it is unfair to compare city children's scores on state tests with other children in Maryland "because we started out behind the rest."

Under a formula designed to provide more aid to school systems with lower tax bases, Baltimore will receive about $333 million from the state this year -- roughly half the school system's budget. The Glendening administration has said it plans to funnel about $100 million more to the city over the next four years.

Linking the issues

But Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, the West Baltimore Democrat who has been harshly critical of Dr. Amprey's management, said yesterday that the state Board of Education and Dr. Grasmick cannot tie the question of funding to administrative reform.

"The two need to go hand in hand. If the state is saying you can't have one without the other, it's being irresponsible," said Mr. Rawlings, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I don't see it as a full defense, because if Baltimore is where it was two to three years ago, they're below standard and still have a lot of poor students," said Allan Odden, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on education financing. "There's a pretty good argument Baltimore still has on the school finance side."

Alan Baron, a Washington lawyer who represents the plaintiffs in the ACLU suit, said both management problems and lack of money undermine education.

"It's the great luxury of being in the middle," Mr. Baron said. "I don't care what it takes to accomplish that to which these children are entitled. At this point it's just too early to tell what the remedy will be."

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