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City seeks more say in reform of schools

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore elected officials, activists and parents protested yesterday that a proposal to put a new panel in charge of the financially strapped city school system would give the state too much control over the education of the city's children.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has said he wants a greater role in overseeing the system's budget in exchange for a $42 million loan that would help the system deal with a crushing cash flow shortfall and a $58 million deficit.

"Every time they give money to a system that is black or minority, they come in and they have to change everything. They have to tear the system apart," said Del. Clarence Davis, a Baltimore Democrat.

On Thursday, state officials outlined a plan to fix the fiscal problems of the school system by creating a three- to five-member board that would temporarily assume the powers of the current school board, balance the system's books and cut costs.

A draft of emergency legislation to reshape school management will be worked out over the weekend, and lawmakers and other city and state officials are scheduled to meet Monday to review a version of the bill.

Ehrlich aides say the governor would likely appoint the majority of the members of the proposed new board - a prospect that concerns many Baltimore leaders.

"I don't want our children to think that their mothers and fathers cannot run the school system that educates them. I have a major problem with that," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and a product of the city's public school system. "Baltimore is full of people who are capable of running the school system. It is insulting to the people of the city when they are put in a situation in which they are not in control of their schools, like every other school system in America."

Before details of the plan were disclosed, Mayor Martin O'Malley said he had agreed in principle to the arrangement. Later, when the mayor heard that Ehrlich had spelled out specifics of the plan, O'Malley contended it contained elements he had not agreed to. The mayor tried to get his message out yesterday by sending an e-mail newsletter to thousands of residents.

O'Malley said his understanding was that the governor and the mayor would make an equal number of appointees with the third or fifth person being independent. He said that he will work with the city's delegation in Annapolis to request amendments to the plan, if they are needed, to give the city more influence.

In the legislation, O'Malley wants a provision requiring the school system to balance its budget and a residency requirement for all the members of the panel - which he prefers to call a new school board rather than a panel with broad new authority. The mayor said yesterday that the city and state should continue to run the schools jointly.

But Ehrlich ades say that because the state provides far more funding for schools than the city, the governor's representatives should have a majority role.

"It should be proportional representation following the level of support," said state budget secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., the architect of the preliminary agreement. "The state provides two-thirds of the education funding for the 91,000 Baltimore City school children. Obviously, the makeup of any short-term authority should mirror the level of support."

While many details concerning the panel remained unclear, Ehrlich said he would probably name former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, who had been advising the school system on its financial matters until recently. State officials have also said State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick could be considered.

Neall has said he is interested in remaining closely involved in the school system's financial affairs. Grasmick said yesterday her role was not yet clear.

"That's not for me to decide," she said. "It has to be a consensus."

Grasmick said she thought the panel should include an education-oriented person such as herself to manage academics in addition to overseeing fiscal functions.

Small protest

The prospect of giving too much control of the city schools to the state had about 20 parents, teachers, union leaders and concerned community activists demonstrating yesterday in front of the state Board of Education on West Baltimore Street.

The demonstrators, a loose coalition organized by the ACORN community group, carried signs that labeled Ehrlich a "deadbeat Dad" and proclaimed "Help the children of Baltimore City."

Baltimore Council of PTAs President Michael Hamilton said that the current proposal is troublesome because it might include further cost-cutting this year, and because the suggested makeup of the panel overlooks issues of diversity and city residency.

"The fact that the individuals who may be appointed to this panel [are people] who do not have a vested interest in this city and who do not think very highly about this city is a problem," Hamilton said, referring mainly to Neall.

Hamilton said Neall has focused on the system's financial matters and shown himself to be uninterested in how well city schoolchildren perform academically.

"It's no guarded secret from the PTA's vantage point that his only plan is to cut, cut, cut," he said. "So, yes, we are opposed to him being there."

Neall has said immediate pay cuts or layoffs are required to ease the system's cash flow problem.

Pay cut fears

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English is concerned that the governor's plan will include cutting teachers' salaries.

"The governor's plan is to cut pay, and that is unacceptable," she said.

City lawmakers say they may not approve a deal that gives the state too much power, and say they will also insist that union contracts for teachers and staff be maintained.

Union members were in Annapolis yesterday asking lawmakers to protect their interests, and received assurances from legislators that they would.

"If you don't recognize the bargaining unit, we'll have a big problem," said Del. Brian K. McHale, a Baltimore Democrat.

Yesterday O'Malley said that further teacher layoffs would not be acceptable.

But state officials believe pay cuts or layoffs will have to happen, although the timing is not known.

"The governor is committed to providing solutions," DiPaula said, "and won't let anything stand in the way."

City member sought

If the proposed panel ends up with three members, rather than five, parents and city leaders said yesterday that they hoped to have some influence on who that third member is.

Some have suggested that a third member be one of the most recently-appointed current school board members - in particular Brian D. Morris, because he has children in the school system.

"We need somebody with a real strong personality, somebody who is really an advocate for Baltimore City kids who is able to stand up to Bobby Neall," said Larry Gaines, the immediate past president of the system's Parent Community Advisory Board.

It is unclear what would happen to the existing nine-member school board. Board members had offered their resignations contingent on the acceptance of a plan O'Malley had offered Thursday. That proposal received little consideration from state officials.

'Playing politics'

Current board members said panel members should be city residents.

"I'm being very cautious about who will assume the responsibility of providing oversight," said board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch, who returned this week from a seven-day trip to Trinidad. "And I just want to be convinced that the people do have the interest of the children of Baltimore City at heart. That's the gospel for me."

Many City Council members, including Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr. and Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said parents they have talked to are angry about a new state-controlled system. Parents worry that not enough attention will be paid to academics, and that - without city control - they'll be excluded from future decision-making .

"This is the city school system, and we should follow the will of the people of Baltimore," Harris said. "Too many parents in the city have been complaining that they have not had enough input."

Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the state has under-funded the school system for years. He said he is "totally against" the state taking control of the system.

"They need to stop playing politics with the students of Baltimore City," Young said. "I'm just hoping the citizens of Baltimore get outraged if there is a state takeover of the schools."

Sun staff writers Julie Bell, Doug Donovan, David Nitkin and Tom Pelton contributed to this article.

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