Contract passed with firm to run city schools

July 23, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

In a dramatic break with traditional methods of public schooling, Baltimore yesterday formally hired a private company from Minneapolis to begin to run nine public schools in September.

The plan was announced last month. The five-year contract was approved yesterday on a 3-2 vote by the Board of Estimates. It is worth an estimated $26.7 million in the coming school year.

For that price, Education Alternatives Inc. promises improved student performance, a custom-designed curriculum, and jjTC teacher and student-teacher in every classroom along with an array of high-tech equipment.

The company claims it can do all that for no more money than the school system is currently spending, an estimated $5,549 per pupil in the 1992-1993 school year.

But approval of the program, dubbed "Tesseract" by its creators, came only after an emotional, three-hour debate at City Hall.

Unions representing teachers and Department of Education employees complained that the contract was being rammed through without adequate study or safeguards for their members.

City Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean raised questions about EAI's stability, saying she has not seen enough financial data. She voted against the contract.

And City Council President Mary Pat Clarke said the contract may give the nine schools an unfair money advantage over other schools. She, too, voted against the contract.

None of that discouraged Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, a strong backer of the project who has been talking with EAI for more than two years.

The mayor and his two appointees to the board -- the public works director and city solicitor -- voted for the contract.

"I'm convinced that the adoption of Tesseract will be in the best interests of the children of the city," Mr. Schmoke said. But he also promised to follow up on concerns raised yesterday by the )) unions and others.

The contract is a major breakthrough for EAI, a publicly traded firm marketing its own, custom-designed educational system.

The company calls its program "Tesseract," a term from Madeleine L'Engle's children's book "A Wrinkle In Time" that suggests new ways of thinking.

Its model relies on small student-teacher ratios, the use of computers and other technology, individual education plans for each student and heavy parental involvement.

The company currently operates private schools in Arizona and Minnesota, and a public school in Dade County, Fla.

Baltimore would be its largest project. Mae E. Gaskins, EAI vice president, said that the company's program will be phased in over the school year, beginning in September.

Opponents, meanwhile, accused the mayor and the school department of rushing into the contract.

"If we're going to create some kind of model, let's do it right," said Mrs. Clarke, the City Council president.

She argued that the nine Tesseract schools would, in effect, receive more per-pupil funding than other schools in the city, an assertion disputed by school officials.

Give every school the same amount that EAI will get, "and we will show you that we can beat a Tesseract at its own game," said Mrs. Clarke.

Mrs. McLean, the comptroller, said she has seen unofficial reports that EAI is financially unstable.

"There are too many questions financially that I would like to have answered before we move ahead," she said.

But the mayor defended the company, saying, "We think, based on what I've seen, that this is a financially viable operation."

Mrs. McLean and Mrs. Clarke also complained that the contract leaves up in the air the performance standards that EAI has to meet.

But school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said the school board can terminate the contract if it is not satisfied with the company's performance.

The contract also drew an angry reaction from several unions representing city employees.

"The language in this contract is very, very loose," said Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, who backed the project at first, but now objects that the city is moving too fast. "I do not think we have the support of the public because we have rushed it."

EAI has said that it intends to staff the nine schools with existing teachers on a voluntary basis, though transfers are likely.

But the BTU also is worried about the fate of teachers' aides and other non-professional employees not specifically protected in the contract. Those concerns were echoed by leaders of the City Union of Baltimore and Local 44 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

Contract details

Details of the five-year contract with Education Alternative Inc.:

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