In the latest twist in a long-running legal dispute, a federal judge is considering whether to give the State Department of Education "broader authority" over most aspects of Baltimore public schools in an effort to improve services for special education students.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis said in an order issued Tuesday that he was responding to a recent suggestion by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick that the state take a "much more aggressive role" in management of services for disabled students.
Garbis gave lawyers representing the city schools, the state and disabled students until July 18 to detail the expanded nature and scope of the role that Maryland officials might play in overseeing special education as well as "all school district departments and operations which vitally affect special education, including transportation, human resources, finance and general instruction."
The state already provides extensive monitoring of the city's special education services as well as some technical support.
But Grasmick and other state education officials said yesterday that the state needs more authority - backed by the enforcement power of the federal court - to assure that services are delivered.
At a state school board meeting yesterday and in interviews afterward, state education officials warned that problems with the city schools' special education services could jeopardize millions of dollars in federal aid to all of Maryland's 24 school systems. They said new federal regulations hold the state, which funnels $185 million a year in special education aid to individual districts, accountable for educating disabled students.
"We have a tremendous responsibility," Grasmick said. "Every jurisdiction would lose funding."
A lawyer for the Maryland Disability Law Center, which represents special education students in the case, said she shares the state's frustration with Baltimore's failure to provide transportation and manage specialized education plans.
But attorney Janice Johnson Hunter said she is not yet prepared to endorse greater state authority until it is clear what the state would do.
"That's why the [July 18] briefing will be so important," she said. "There is to my knowledge no plan in place yet. We don't know exactly what the Maryland State Department of Education is prepared to do."
Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said she and the school board plan to meet with their attorneys tomorrow to discuss Garbis' order: "I'm not quite sure what it all means."
But Copeland added that she found it "curious" that the state wants to assume greater responsibility for finances at a time when the school system is on track to eliminate last year's $58 million deficit.
Filed in 1984, the lawsuit alleged that the city schools had failed to properly diagnose disabilities or provide appropriate services to special education students. A settlement was reached four years later. But the case was reopened in 1994, after the city failed to live up to the terms of the agreement.
In the 11 years since then, Garbis has threatened to jail two city school leaders - Walter G. Amprey and Carmen V. Russo - for not complying with the settlement.
Of about 88,000 students enrolled in the city's public schools, roughly 16,000 have been diagnosed with a physical, emotional or learning disability. More than half of them attend regular classes but need extra services, including counseling, speech therapy and tutoring.
After three years of noticeable progress, parents repeatedly complained during the past school year that required services were cut short as the system attempted to cope with a deficit that threatened it with insolvency, Hunter said.
Among the problems were buses that failed to show up to take disabled students to school and counseling sessions for troubled students that ended in midyear because of staffing shortages or poor scheduling.
"Absolutely, it's frustration," Hunter said. "This is a very long-standing lawsuit, and many of the same issues, unfortunately, keep repeating themselves."
Garbis' order follows a June 17 hearing on the city school system's plans to attempt to make up over the summer for such services as speech therapy and psychological counseling that were not provided during the academic year.
In a separate order issued Tuesday, Garbis demanded extensive reporting and monitoring of the summer services.
Garbis wrote that concerns raised by the state and the law center about the city schools' "hasty, incomplete summer program design have merit."
But he added: "It would be futile at this late date to order any form of substantive overhaul or expansion of these summer educational programs."
At yesterday's state board meeting, state officials detailed millions of dollars that city schools have received but not spent on services for children with disabilities. The city school system has until Sept. 30 to use $4.3 million in federal funds it received as part of a $19.8 million allocation for the 2003-2004 school year, according to a report to the state board.
The report also says that the city school system was found by federal auditors to have "serious violations" in documenting Medicaid bills for students receiving school health and transportation services.
The report says that, based on the audit findings, the federal government wants to disallow $12.2 million in aid.
Sun staff writer Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.