Ruling places focus on state for schools fix


Deeming the Baltimore school system's special-education program dysfunctional, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. hailed yesterday a federal judge's emergency order giving the state control over an area he vowed to turn around.

Speaking on WBAL-AM's Stateline radio program with state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Ehrlich said the order is not a "takeover" but "a significant step toward additional state intervention."

"The bottom line is that the judge recognized the wholesale dysfunctionality of the system, has ordered the state to intervene with respect to special-needs kids, and now the challenge falls to me, and it really falls to Nancy and the experts we are going to bring in, to deliver the constitutional rights to these kids," Ehrlich said.

The comments came in response to U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis' emergency order issued Friday evening.

The order was the latest ruling stemming from a 1984 lawsuit filed by advocates for disabled students.

At issue were disruptions in providing services, such as speech therapy and counseling, to 10,000 disabled students over the past school year. This summer, only several hundred out of thousands of students who were supposed to be compensated for the lapses received services.

The ruling could have political implications because Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat expected to run for governor next year, has linked himself to the school system.

After the ruling by Garbis on Friday, O'Malley issued a brief statement, saying: "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."

Ehrlich dismissed that statement yesterday.

"What the City Council or Martin O'Malley or anyone thinks right now is not particularly germane to this," he said. "They had the opportunity to get these kids their services, they failed, and now the state is going to come in and try to fix it."

O'Malley, however, said that the state has offered its $1.4 million plan despite an outstanding court dispute regarding less-than-adequate state funding.

"This governor has no record on improving any agency yet and given his track record Marylanders should be wary of his interest in 'fixing' special education in Baltimore City," O'Malley said in an e-mail. School officials could not be reached yesterday for comment.

Garbis ruled in favor of the state's $1.4 million plan, which allows it to send eight appointed managers from other school systems, along with a lead administrator, into the city schools headquarters.

The managers will oversee a broad range of departments - including human resources, finance and general instruction - and be paired with state administrators.

Managers will report to Grasmick, who will have the authority to resolve disputes until they are brought back to the court.

The city is responsible for paying for the plan, leading city teachers to criticize it as another unfunded requirement. "If we don't have funding, we just have more people telling us what to do, and we don't have the resources to follow through," said Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union.

In court last week, city officials said the state's plan was a veiled attempt to take over the system. Instead, they proposed a plan to hire two out-of-state consultants, which Garbis dismissed as "cobbled together."

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland argued in court that the school system has successfully turned around crisis situations in the past - such as finances and facilities management - and can rise to the challenge again.

But after 21 years of what Garbis called a "massive failure," the state's plan provided "the only realistic hope," he wrote.

The state already asserts a degree of control over the city school system.

In 1997, the state and city entered into a partnership in exchange for an infusion of state money. That led to an arrangement in which the mayor and governor jointly appoint city school board members.

Last year, tension mounted when Ehrlich proposed to bail out the city schools, which were on the verge of bankruptcy, with a $58 million package that would have come with more state authority. Instead, O'Malley offered the schools a loan in order to maintain local authority.

The question now surfacing is: Can the state do what the city has failed to do in the past 21 years?

In an interview Friday, Grasmick said she will appoint educators who understand how a functioning school system works and place them on site in an unprecedented move.

"One can never predict the future but I can honestly say this: We're absolutely dedicated to achieving this," said Grasmick, who is rumored to be Ehrlich's potential lieutenant governor running mate.

Some advocates, former lawmakers and educators supported the decision yesterday , which they said seemed to be the only viable option.

Former Democratic state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who helped push through the 1997 partnership between the city and state, said city schools had been given ample opportunities.

"Why did the city not make a better attempt at this this summer?" said Hoffman. "Anything is going to be better for these kids than this. At some point you have to say, 'You guys can't do it. You can't do it, and you're not doing it.'"

Margaret J. McLaughlin, a professor of special education at the University of Maryland, agreed but cautioned that the degree of cooperation and authority will be crucial to success. "I think they need to do something drastic," said McLaughlin. "It just remains to be seen who these people are and what authority they'll actually have and how deep that authority goes."

But Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, said she is concerned that the state's plan will be nothing more than an added layer of bureaucracy.

"The judge ruled, but the jury's still out as to whether or not this will make a difference," said McIntosh.

Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said the state should bear as much of the burden for the system's failures because it has been in a partnership with the city since 1997.

"The state is as much responsible as the city," said Harris. "They have to accept ownership. Where have they been ... in helping us to fix this?"

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