Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has ordered his superintendent to clean up the management of the Baltimore schools and promised to judge his progress with a "report card" in December.
In a strongly worded memo sent late last month and obtained by The Sun, Mr. Schmoke outlined steps Superintendent Walter G. Amprey must take to help the city smooth bruised relations in Annapolis -- steps that would allow Baltimore to recover millions withheld by the General Assembly and to win millions more sought in increased state school spending.
The mayor has decided to act, sources said, anticipating the forthcoming legislative session in Annapolis and the need to show progress to a skeptical General Assembly.
While the directive specifies no consequences for failure, Dr. Amprey's supporters and critics alike say the letter is evidence of a deep strain between the superintendent and the mayor over Dr. Amprey's leadership of the city schools. Some speculate that Dr. Amprey's job is now at risk.
However, Dr. Amprey and school board President Phillip H. Farfel say the mayor's message was neither harsh nor unexpected. Instead, they said, it is a call for signs of progress needed to convince legislators and others of the commitment to improving the school system.
"What he is talking about is making sure we can report on these issues and to demonstrate what progress is being made," Dr. Amprey said. "I think we are doing everything we can and should do."
Mr. Schmoke's December deadline requires the superintendent to fix more than a half-dozen management deficiencies. They include a lack of a uniform curriculum at all levels; 20-30 instances of testing improprieties -- twice that of all other jurisdictions combined; a "woefully inadequate" computerized record-keeping system and a weak employee evaluation system. Attached to the mayor's memo is a list of solutions Dr. Amprey has proposed and steps taken by administrators to iron out these problems.
A management consultant was hired in September to assess what improvements have already been made, and will report its findings by the end of the year. By that time also, the state will report schools' scores on May exams, which Mr. Farfel predicts will show progress that can be attributed to improvements in management. "The bottom line of progress is the student performance," he said. "We're making progress."
In the memo, Mr. Schmoke wrote that he had discussed the school system's problems with Gov. Parris N. Glendening. In those talks, the governor and the mayor discussed two major lawsuits involving the city, its schools and the state as well as the prospects for resolving them.
"Although we continue to explore settlement options, I am not optimistic about our ultimate chances of success in the General Assembly," Mr. Schmoke wrote. "One issue is abundantly clear. If we are to reach settlement with the state, and if we are to obtain additional funds from the General Assembly, we must resolve the management issues by December of this year. Resolving these management issues is the key to improving the legal and political climate for our schools."
Contacted yesterday, Mr. Schmoke declined to say what would happen if the superintendent fails to meet the December deadline.
"Dr. Amprey was specific about what he wanted to do, and I was specific about when it should be done," Mr. Schmoke said. "It is very important for the future of our schools that this timetable be met. I know that many members of the legislature will judge us by what Dr. Amprey has said he wanted to get done."
The most potent criticisms of Dr. Amprey came last week in a legal claim filed by the state. Maryland lawyers asked a circuit court judge to order total restructuring of the city schools.
Mr. Schmoke's December deadline is seen as firm, as that is seen as the last opportunity Baltimore schools will have to win back $5.9 million withheld by the General Assembly to force improvements in school system management.
The legislature is holding the money until January, when it wants proof Baltimore has redesigned its employee appraisal system and conducted a study of its
high rate of student transfers, which hampers their education.
Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman of Baltimore, Democratic chairwoman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, when read the memo said: "It would strike me as an observer as what supervisors do with subordinates when they are not happy: They document what the employee is expected to do."
She said legislators want results, especially at a time when the city has filed a separate lawsuit demanding increases in state aid for education.
"I think that we are so far down a bad road either in reality or perception or both that the best solution would be a total overhaul of the administrative structure of the Baltimore City Public Schools," she said. "I do think that part of the answer is everything should be shaken up."