Three years ago, amid great fanfare, a federal judge ordered a team of state managers to oversee special education in the Baltimore schools, a move that many viewed as a partial state takeover without the controversial title.
Today, the head of that management team, Harry Fogle, is retiring and, as the state scales back on its intervention, he is not being replaced.
The three parties in a quarter-century-old lawsuit agree that services to students with disabilities have improved since 2005, when the state and the city were openly sparring for control of Baltimore's schools amid a gubernatorial campaign.
But deep-seated problems in the city's special-education program remain, and the system has a long way to go before it is freed from a quarter-century-old lawsuit. And, as state education officials reduce the number of managers in the city - there will be four full time next academic year, down from eight - they worry that the rapid pace of change under schools chief Andres Alonso might result in new problems with special education.
Fogle, a former assistant superintendent in Carroll County, never seized control of the system as city school officials had feared. He was more of a behind-the-scenes coach, whether taking notes quietly from the audience at school board meetings or calling parents to arrange for children to make up services they missed.
The 2005 court intervention was the result of a breakdown in providing services to city students with disabilities. At the time Fogle was hired, the system owed students more than 90,000 hours of services such as speech therapy and counseling missed during the 2004-2005 school year. That breakdown became fodder in the campaign pitting then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. against then-Mayor Martin O'Malley, who won.
Today, with the state team's help, all but about 600 of the 90,000-plus hours are accounted for. While tens of thousands of hours in makeup services were provided, more than 20,000 hours were written off because the system could not reach the students' parents after multiple attempts or the parents turned the services down.
Every school year since 2004-2005, students have continued missing services, though not in the same numbers as they did then. The problem three years ago involved the services students receive outside the classroom, but the issue recently has been services associated with instruction.
The system has done better complying with the provision of federal law that prohibits segregating special education students unnecessarily. But as students with disabilities are increasingly placed in classrooms alongside their nondisabled peers, the system has struggled to provide the accommodations they need.
Lawyers for children with disabilities, who sued the state and the city school system in 1984, say the team's success won't be known until the managers leave. The team was charged with building the system's internal capacity so it can function on its own.
"Their first stated directive is to make the ship float by itself," said Bob Berlow, an attorney for the Maryland Disability Law Center who is assigned full time to the case. While there has been improvement, Berlow said, "they're still waving at the Statue of Liberty. They're not anywhere near getting over to England."
Before the lawsuit can end, the school system must, among other things, increase the graduation rate among students with disabilities, a goal that will likely take years to attain. Some observers say it's not in the interest of the lawyers or the court's special master for the lawsuit to end, since their jobs depend on it continuing. The court holds the system to stricter standards than federal special education law.
During the summer of 2005, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis authorized state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to send - at the school system's expense - a team of managers to oversee every system department that affects special education. The first year, the intervention cost the system $1.3 million. Next year, the projected cost is $725,000 for four full-time managers, one part-time manager and a part-time data analyst.
The transportation department manager is working part time now that transportation for special education students has gotten better. Three years ago, the system routinely had to call emergency taxis when school buses didn't show up.
Moving forward, Fogle said the biggest challenge facing the system is a shortage of knowledgeable leadership in the schools. He said the system needs to do more to retain teachers and administrators, which means improving working conditions.
He is proud that, for the past two school years, the system has opened with no teaching vacancies in special education. "Day two, it changes," as people begin to quit, he said.
At the central office, Fogle said, the system has made some excellent hires. But the parties in the lawsuit are worried as a top special education administrator, Idalyn Hauss, prepares to leave her job.
A 58-year-old ordained minister, Fogle is retiring so he and his wife can live near their daughter in Tennessee. He said many of his relatives died in their 60s, so he doesn't want to wait to retire.
Fogle began his career in special education in 1972 as a teacher in Washington County. He returned to his native Carroll County in 1985 and worked there for two decades. In Baltimore, he spent two years living in a downtown apartment building alongside dozens of the city's Filipino teachers, many of whom teach special education. As a neighborly gesture, he visited many of their classrooms and gave them feedback.
In three years, Fogle worked with three city schools CEOs. He said the first, Bonnie S. Copeland, chose not to get to know him. The second, Charlene Cooper Boston, was "very collaborative," Fogle said; they met at least once a week. He said Alonso, the third CEO, is also accessible, and they also meet regularly. He called Alonso "a take-charge kind of person" who knows where he wants to take the system and wants what's best for kids.
"Only time and politics will tell if anyone can make the impact," Fogle said. "I think he's the person who can."
Still, Fogle has some concerns about the implementation of Alonso's plan to decentralize school management and give more power to principals. He said the system has given principals high-quality training in their new responsibilities, but he's concerned about the amount of information they had to take in. "You can't put a gallon and a half in a gallon jug," he said.
Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education, said the system made great strides early on this school year, but she worries there could be a backslide amid personnel changes and rapid change. "There's so much transition," she said. "The team is trying to figure out how they can best be of support."
Alonso, a longtime special education teacher, said he is watching to make sure the system doesn't drop the ball during a time of much-needed reform.
Of special education, he said, "We need to change how we do business in this area perhaps more than in any other, because the children are most vulnerable and some of the outcomes most recalcitrant."