Schaefer ties school controversy to 'communications problem'

November 04, 1993|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

After separate meetings with a group of Baltimore County teachers and the school board, Gov. William Donald Schaefer said yesterday that a "communications problem" is at the heart of a long-running controversy in what is otherwise "an excellent school system."

In an unusual foray into a local school issue, Mr. Schaefer said he wanted to see firsthand what happened when special education students were transferred to neighborhood schools.

The county's hurried push to transfer hundreds of those students this fall, a policy called "inclusion," led to a noisy movement over the summer by some parents and teachers to dump Superintendent Stuart Berger and replace the county's appointed school board with an elected panel.

Groups opposed to the transfers lost a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the process.

The governor last week met for 90 minutes with concerned parents, who asked for his intervention.

As he left Padonia Elementary School yesterday after a 50-minute closed-door meeting with the teachers, Mr. Schaefer said cryptically, "There seems to be a problem, and I'm beginning to form an idea of what the problem is."

When he left a second closed-door meeting, this time with the school board at Golden Ring Middle School, Mr. Schaefer said, ** "Communication is the most difficult problem."

Again, he offered no details, although he did say that the inclusion controversy remains a local issue.

The governor appoints Baltimore County's school board. He has held two vacancies on the nine-member panel open for several months. After meeting with teachers and observing classes at both schools that included special education students, the governor said, "I'm impressed with the devotion and dedication of the teachers."

State School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who accompanied the governor, said it was helpful for him to see classes in session. "It was important for him to hear from everyday people, not only administrators," she said.

After meeting with the board, Mr. Schaefer said, "I listened to them, and they absolutely think they are doing the right thing. There is a process, but the process can be made better. You start with an excellent system and you want to keep it that way."

Calling schools in Baltimore, Howard and Montgomery counties "leaders in education" nationwide, Mr. Schaefer said he would fight anything that could diminish them.

But he added, "I don't want that [Baltimore County conflict]. They have got to restore confidence in the system."

After Mr. Schaefer left, the board continued to meet privately with Dr. Grasmick.

Afterward, Dr. Grasmick said that the state offered help with additional community outreach and training for teachers in schools with disabled children that were formerly in special education centers. Board President Alan M. Leberknight said the panel will discuss the offer.

Asked about the governor's comments on "the problem," Mr. Leberknight said, "I feel we had more communications problems earlier in the year. We've made tremendous progress. There has been so much positive in the last six to eight weeks."

Mr. Leberknight also pointed out that the inclusion plan has many advocates. "You have people who say this is wonderful," he said. "This board has worked hard to address the issue."

The school system is under a ruling by the federal Office of Civil Rights to move as many disabled children as possible out of special education schools and into neighborhood schools.

Conceding that other counties have approached inclusion more gradually, Mr. Leberknight said that the Baltimore County school board decided to do it quickly.

Dr. Berger had no comment after leaving the meeting.

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