Tesseract debate avoided School official fails to arrive at forum

December 02, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

A scheduled debate over Baltimore's controversial school privatization plan turned one-sided last night when a school system representative backed out at the last minute.

As a result, members of the South East Community Organization (SECO) heard mostly critics of the so-called "Tesseract" experiment, which this year put nine public schools in the hands of a private company.

"The big hole was we had no one here who works for Tesseract," said David Casey, past president of SECO, who chaired the meeting of about 75 people at Hampstead Hill Middle School.

"That sure doesn't bode well for any kind of accountability to parents, if they don't show up at a meeting like this," he added.

The meeting was scheduled several weeks ago, and Matthew Riley, the school system's liaison on the project, had agreed to appear, said Robert Giloth, SECO executive director.

"He was asked to make a presentation. . . . It wasn't hidden that we wanted to debate," said Mr. Giloth.

But about 3 p.m. yesterday, the school official backed out, said Mr. Giloth.

When Mr. Giloth complained to school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, the superintendent told him that Mr. Riley "wasn't the appropriate person, he couldn't talk about policy, and no one else could come," Mr. Giloth said.

Members of the group were clearly disappointed by the fact that no one appeared at the meeting to answer questions about Tesseract.

"We gave them ample time through the invitation," said Mr. Giloth. "It undermined the meeting. . . . There was a missing perspective."

Nat Harrington, spokesman for the school system, said that school officials originally had thought Mr. Riley would simply be asked to give a factual update on the program, not participate in a debate.

Once the superintendent learned that the meeting would include a policy discussion, however, he decided that Mr. Riley was the wrong person to participate, the spokesman said.

Mr. Harrington said the superintendent himself "would have gone had he been invited and had his schedule permitted" and told that to Mr. Giloth.

At issue last night was a program that has drawn nationwide attention, giving day-to-day control of nine schools to Education Alternatives Inc., a private company based in Minneapolis.

Dubbed "Tesseract" for a term from a child's science fiction novel, the company's educational model promises computers and two instructors in every classroom, along with personalized teaching for all students.

The company also provides aggressive maintenance and budget planning through its corporate partners, Johnson Controls World Services Inc. and Peat Marwick.

But the plan drew controversy in Baltimore from the start, with City Council President Mary Pat Clarke and Comptroller Jacqueline F. McLean voting against the contract, worth an estimated $26.7 million in the coming school year.

Mrs. McLean raised questions about EAI's stability, saying she had not seen enough financial data, while Mrs. Clarke said the contract may give the nine schools an unfair advantage in funding and resources over other schools.

Some of those same criticisms emerged again last night from three panelists who addressed the SECO meeting, including Mrs. Clarke.

"I'm not here to knock Tesseract," said Mrs. Clarke.

But she went on to say that the contract with EAI has "no accountability standards," and that the city could do a better job than EAI, given the same resources.

Mrs. Clarke said that "our kids are not for sale," adding that private companies such as EAI "are ill-advised to be making a profit off the local tax dollar."

Marilyn Hunter, a representative from the Maryland State Teachers Association, warned that the Tesseract experiment is part of "a very insidious plan" to undermine public education.

"We're concerned that our Baltimore schools are being used in x xTC plan to develop a new industry, a private industry, educating children in this country," she said.

But the program also got some support from Valere Wilmoth, a member of the SECO board who said parents are pleased with Tesseract at Graceland Park-O'Donnell Heights Elementary School.

"Parents are involved with their school; children are not in the streets, they're home doing homework," she said. "The school is much cleaner, the children are better behaved."

Ms. Wilmoth also urged that EAI be given time to make major changes in schools that have been in decline for years.

And Mr. Giloth suggested that the school system may have lost the opportunity to win some converts.

"In some ways, it was a missed opportunity," he said. "If Tesseract has a good story, this community would have been receptive to hear it."

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