Citing the city school system's long-standing failure to provide services for thousands of disabled students, a federal judge gave state education officials control over a sizable portion of the troubled system yesterday.
An emergency order, issued by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, is the latest development in the politically charged tussle over control of the city school system. It marks yet another sharp turn in a lawsuit that is more than two decades old.
Garbis considered proposals submitted by the Maryland State Department of Education, the city school system and the attorneys who represent special-education students.
Yesterday, he called the state's proposal "the only realistic hope" that the city's special-education students will get the education they are entitled to. Garbis ordered that the state implement "the least intrusive plan" and tailor it to special-education functions.
The State Department of Education "has the legal authority, resources, and duty to assume ultimate responsibility at this late juncture for the crisis and collapse in special education services at hand," Garbis wrote.
Garbis went on to catalog the city schools' continued failed leadership and performance. Allowing the city schools to continue would be enabling management "to persist, for yet another year, in chaotic, unreliable, and wasteful 'remedial' exercises at the expense ... of the most at-risk children in the Baltimore City Public Schools," he wrote.
The city and state are defendants in a 1984 lawsuit filed by the Maryland Disability Law Center. The suit charges that the city schools failed to provide adequate services to students with disabilities.
Yesterday's ruling follows two full days of extensive and at times heated testimony this week in which each of the three parties offered plans they said would prevent recurring breakdowns in providing services to special-education students.
City officials said yesterday that they were disappointed with the decision and are exploring their options.
However, they strayed from previous statements that the state's plan is a virtual takeover, saying they intend to comply with the order.
"We will not jeopardize the system at all by trying to play cute with the judge's order," school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said at a news conference last night. "We will comply."
"The board recognizes its role as the manager of the system and will continue to act as though we are in charge of the system," Morris added.
The plaintiffs, who had argued that the state should appoint an independent authority to oversee special-education functions, appeared satisfied with the decision.
"I think the court did take a firm stand for the benefit of students with disabilities," said Janice Johnson Hunter of the Maryland Disability Law Center. "It's clear the court was unwilling to put students at risk for the upcoming school year."
The state's $1.4 million plan would send eight managers from other school systems, along with a lead administrator, into the city schools headquarters to manage various departments - including human resources, general instruction and finance.
The managers would report to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who would have the authority to resolve disputes.
Grasmick applauded the plan, which she said is not a state "takeover."
"We clearly feel pleased that this provides, without ambiguity, an opportunity to do the right things for the children with special needs in the Baltimore City school system," she said yesterday.
"Our greatest hope is to do this in collaboration with the city school system," she added.
Though the case was settled in 1988, it was reopened in 1994 after the city did not meet the terms of the agreement.
The most recent dispute involves lapses in providing services, such as physical therapy and counseling, that about 10,000 of the city's special-education students were supposed to receive during the last school year.
In his ruling, Garbis accuses the city school system of "grossly" understating the "huge proportion" of affected students, noting that the special master overseeing the lawsuit found it to be more than 50 percent.
Most recently the city school system attempted to make up for the lapses during the school year by providing at least six hours of services to students over the summer.
But again, the city failed, with fewer than 300 students receiving the makeup hours as of Wednesday, Garbis wrote in his decision.
Three plans offered
The plans Garbis was choosing among offered three alternatives with different power structures.
City officials revealed their plan Monday in court to hire two out-of-state consultants - the international "turnaround" consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal and a special-education consultant - though neither had contracts.
In his ruling, Garbis criticizes the city schools' hastily presented plan, calling it a "handshake contract" that was "cobbled together by counsel on horseback."
The plan presented by lawyers for students with disabilities entailed hiring an independent, outside authority to manage all services related to special education.
They recommended David Gilmore, a court-appointed transportation administrator for the District of Columbia's public schools.
Though Garbis says the extremity of the situation meets the conditions for appointing an outside authority, he chose the less-intrusive state plan. However, he ordered the state to include a role for Gilmore or a similar consultant.
Despite the political overtones of yesterday's decision, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, expected rivals for next year's gubernatorial race, issued muted responses.
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said in a statement: "We are reviewing the judge's decision. We are supportive of the school system's efforts to make sure all of our children receive a quality education and of any action they will take in light of today's decision."
Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the governor looks forward to "long overdue and much-needed changes in the Baltimore City school system."
"It is now time to shift the focus from the courtroom to the classroom," DeLeaver said.
But the plaintiffs said that for the plan to work, cooperation between state and city officials is crucial.
"Can the state do it alone? No," said Hunter, of the Maryland Disability Law Center. "These two defendants, equally responsible to the court and to the existing statutory authorities, can in fact move forward if they can get past their differences and work cooperatively together. Certainly both the students and the employees in [the school system] are owed no less."
Sun staff writers William Wan and Eric Siegel contributed to this article.