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Parents plan to give views on EAI today Meeting with mayor set amid debate over contract with schools; Battle of bottom lines; Company is resisting $7 million cut from $44 million contract


Now it's the parents' turn to talk -- and listen -- as the public debate resumes today over the fate of Baltimore's contract with Education Alternatives Inc. to run nine city schools.

Parents and educators will get their chance to speak for and against EAI at a 5:15 p.m. meeting at City Hall called by Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke. He must decide whether to sever the city's ties with the Minneapolis firm to end a months-long dispute over millions of dollars.

Until now, the negotiations have been a battle of the bottom lines -- the school system scraping to balance a budget $32 million in the red, and EAI officials resisting a flat $7 million cut to the company's $44 million contract because the company has not earned a profit.

Both sides say they have children's needs at heart in this nationally watched project once billed as a revolution in education. And for a brief moment today, the financial wizards will take a back seat to residents affected by the city's 3 1/2 -year-old experiment.

If the city ends the EAI contract, some parents worry, it would seem a betrayal to the students who, since 1992, have had the benefit of a program with resources more like that of a suburban school.

Others have said in the days leading to this meeting that they would prefer the city run all of its schools.

EAI has arranged for buses to transport members of its Coalition of Parents For Schools That Work, ensuring a strong showing of supporters from its nine schools. Parents who say they are not enamored of EAI expect to be outnumbered.

The Baltimore Teachers Union, which has been an outspoken opponent, plans to send a representative.

Coalition representative Jasmine Gunthorpe said she resents the portrayal of the five-year management arrangement as an experiment. EAI's direct influence on the children can neither be overlooked or undone, and she would welcome neither a contract reduction nor cancellation.

"We have kids talking about being computer scientists and lawyers," she said, crediting teachers' high expectations and EAI's emphasis on computers as their inspiration.

EAI's combination of business experience and instruction innovations works, "absolutely. We can actually see it happening in our schools," said Ms. Gunthorpe, mother of two Harlem Park Community School students, noting that EAI was asked to turn around low-performing schools in predominantly poor sections of the city.

Cutting the contract -- or forcing EAI out -- she said, would amount to "denying the students in the process now, but also the community that wants and hopes for more for our children and wants to focus on their preparedness."

Many EAI parents have praised the company's success at cleaning up formerly drab school buildings and its efforts to tailor education programs to students' individual needs.

Not all the parents share a positive view of EAI's teaching methods; some say EAI's innovations leave them cold.

Christina Forbes, whose has a son at Graceland Park-O Donnell Heights, says she'd prefer the EAI contract to end.

The stress on academic performance is high, but not enough information is provided to parents to help them reinforce lessons at home that seem to her to be well beyond the students' ability, she said.

"They are going too far with it," she said.

Some at the EAI-run school also seem to overlook the financial straits of some city parents, she added. Her son earned a prize day trip for good attendance this spring, she said, but could not participate because the family could not afford the transportation fee. She and other parents have contacted school and city officials to express their disappointment with EAI.

The Baltimore Teachers Union, longtime critic of the EAI contract, will lobby as it has in the past for the $44 million contract to be canceled, Co-president Irene B. Dandridge said yesterday.

"If they were showing better results for the money, the mayor would have a reason to justify keeping it," she said, referring to a summer study by the University of Maryland Baltimore County that showed EAI schools differed little from comparable schools run by the city.

"Parents may like the clean schools and the computers, but from what our people tell us, there are problems, and in some cases the students are not doing better than they were before EAI started."

Other groups in the community will be watching closely as Mr. Schmoke gives parents, teachers and principals their say.

"When the city entered this contract, what it was saying to the children at EAI schools is 'You matter, and we were willing to do something radical on your behalf to try to ensure for you the best possible education,' " said Carol Reckling of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a church-based activist group that has opposed the EAI contract.

"The message was the right message. The approach was the wrong approach."

The negotiations that led to today's meeting between the mayor and parents, she said, may teach Baltimore "the meaning of for-profit education vs. the meaning of public education."

In its latest, 11th-hour proposal to the city, EAI offered late last week to take a $7 million fee reduction on the condition that its contract is extended to allow the firm to recoup the loss.

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