Seeking to head off a new venture in school privatization, the Baltimore Teachers Union filed a lawsuit yesterday aimed at thwarting the takeover of three city elementary schools by a private New York company.
The lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court says the city and state school boards exceeded their legal authority in entering into a $10.7 million-a-year contract with Edison Schools Inc. to operate three underperforming elementary schools beginning July 1.
The suit asks the court to void the five-year contract and declare that the city and state boards may not delegate their authority over education in the city to a private business.
"The Baltimore Teachers Union is pursuing legal recourse to protect the rights of its members and to ensure that all of the schools in Baltimore City receive equal treatment and a fair allocation of resources," the union said. "A fair allocation of the city's limited resources, in BTU's view, does not include a profit to a private-sector company."
Spokesmen for the city and state school boards declined to comment on the suit, saying their attorneys had not had a chance to review the court documents.
Earlier yesterday, before the lawsuit was filed, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick spoke of how the contract with Edison to manage Gilmor and Furman L. Templeton in West Baltimore and Montebello in Northeast Baltimore had freed the three schools from union rules.
"We privatized these schools," Grasmick said at the inaugural meeting at a downtown hotel of a group dedicated to improving the performance of minority students. "There is no more union."
The legal theory behind the teachers union's lawsuit is similar to that advanced in a 1993 lawsuit the union filed against the city to halt a previous privatization effort with Education Alternatives Inc. involving nine city schools.
That suit was dismissed at the request of the union in July 1996, three months after the city ended its 3 1/2-year "Tesseract" experiment in the wake of a dispute with EAI over finances.
Since then, the city and state have entered into a five-year partnership to operate the city's schools.
In its suit, the teachers union said the Edison contract improperly grants the company the authority to set pay scales and disciplinary policies for teachers, in violation of the union's obligation to bargain for wages and benefits for its 8,500 members.
"The contract makes Edison the employer," Traci L. Burch, an attorney for the union, said.
That makes the Edison agreement significantly different from a charterlike arrangement in which nonprofit organizations run several city schools but the teachers continue to be employed by the school system, she said.
The suit also claims that the three elementary schools to be run by Edison would be getting more money per pupil than the average city elementary schools. City and state officials have said the $7,462 per pupil Edison will receive under its contract is equal to the average per-pupil expenditure for all city schoolchildren.
In 16 states
The suit comes a month after the approval of the contract with Edison, which operates 79 schools in 16 states and is the nation's largest publicly traded school management company, and a rejection of a last-minute bid by the teachers union to reform the three schools without turning them over to a private company.
The Edison contract marks the state board's first effort to take over failing schools and hand control of them to a private company.
Gilmor, Furman L. Templeton and Montebello have been among the city's poorest performing elementary schools, with a four-year record of low academic achievement.
Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.