Secretly fashioned plans to give the state partial control of city schools in return for an infusion of new aid were welcomed yesterday by optimists and scoffed at by many who said they'd heard it all before.
Educators and school observers saw hope in a plan that might close a spending gap between Maryland's rich and poor districts -- and might persuade foundations to join in an effort to create a system that middle-class Baltimoreans would be proud of.
If the Baltimore and Maryland officials who have been forming the plan achieve that dream, close observers say, they will have created a first among urban school districts in America.
"Every urban system is in deep trouble," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, "and none has turned around yet. I'm suspicious of talk that better management will solve all the ills."
Most of those involved in the secret negotiations weren't talking yesterday, after The Sun first disclosed the proposal being discussed by city and state leaders, including Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.
But the bare bones of their plans began to emerge.
They would pattern the governance of the new Baltimore system after Chicago, where Mayor Richard M. Daley has been handed full control of the city's $3 billion school budget and has turned day-to-day operations over to a chief executive officer and a team of seven administrators.
While details have yet to be worked out, those close to the negotiations predicted that if Baltimore schools are reorganized, curricula will be quickly shifted to give more emphasis to the "outcomes" demanded of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program, the major effort of state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
Dr. Grasmick is known to be critical of the city's compliance with the assessment program -- and of the fact that city schools trail all Maryland school systems in test results by a wide margin.
Critics in Baltimore worried yesterday that new management would be of little benefit unless it was accompanied by a complete overhaul of the North Avenue administration and the infusion of large amounts of money.
"This is a state takeover. Let's not call it anything else," said Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.
"The state taking over isn't going to make kids come to school more often, it isn't going to improve parental involvement, and it isn't going to get more supplies into the schools unless a miracle happens."
Some ministers, community leaders and elected officials agreed.
They said the proposal would create a new layer of bureaucracy in the city school system, thus repeating a familiar pattern: Since 1960, the system has been restructured at least 13 times.
Critics also questioned whether widely supported efforts to shift more control and management responsibilities to local schools would be hampered by a new city-state central administration.
Mayor Schmoke has been nudging the system toward school-based financial management that would allow each of the city's 184 public schools to be run more independently.
"I fail to see how that structure at the top would lead to any great changes," said the Rev. Roger J. Gench, pastor of Brown Memorial United Presbyterian Church and a leader of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, a church-based social action group.
"We've always been pushing for more school-based management, and this looks like we're just adding another layer of bureaucracy."
But City Councilwoman Stephanie Rawlings, who represents Northwest Baltimore, said she believes giving local schools greater control still could fit with the proposal.
"I think it's in such early stages that if more neighborhood control is what communities want, I think it could fit in this sort of partnership," she said. "I don't think the two are mutually exclusive."
Rita Ridgley, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said parents feel locked out of the secret planning.
"These are our kids, and this is our system," said Ms. Ridgley. "We deserve a role, especially if they eliminate the school board."
One source close to the city-state negotiations said at least one major foundation would be interested in investing in Baltimore schools if North Avenue management were reformed.
Marcy Canavan, executive director of the Maryland Education Coalition, an organization that promotes equitable school funding, said: "There's a tendency to blame the governing structure. That's the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is bring changes to the classroom, which is what it's all about."
But Ms. Canavan said she welcomed any effort to close the $2,000-per-student gap in spending between Maryland's rich and poor school districts.
If the proposal now in draft stage reaches fruition, Baltimore would become the latest in a line of urban districts that have adopted major new governance plans.
"It's not a management problem, though; it's a leadership problem," argued Dr. Houston of the AASA. "School districts are casting about for folks who will run their systems like a business, believing that will solve their problems."