Amprey won't spend more to expand EAI

June 11, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Ending his most tumultuous week in his three years as Baltimore schools superintendent, Walter G. Amprey abandoned plans yesterday to spend millions more in city money to expand the role of a private, for-profit company running schools.

As he sought to make peace with the 8,500-member teachers union, the superintendent said he recognized mounting resistance to expanding the role of Education Alternatives Inc. -- a source of considerable contention among unions and concern among lawmakers and civic leaders.

"I think there's a message coming from a lot of people in the city that's saying, 'Wait a minute, let's slow down.' I'm not sure they're saying dump EAI, but, there are a lot of people saying, 'Well, maybe this is going too fast for us," he said at a news conference at school headquarters.

Dr. Amprey's plans to expand EAI to three Sandtown-Winchester area elementary schools had drawn stiff opposition among critics, including some City Council members, who called the school privatization venture an unproven experiment that diverts millions from other schools.

He acknowledged that the city lacked the money to add new EAI contracts. Current contracts have increased annual spending for individual schools by more than $2 million a year in some cases. He said he would "rule out" any expansion of the role of EAI, which now works in 12 city schools, unless the money came from sources outside the school system.

As he has repeatedly, he said yesterday that parents and teachers had asked that EAI manage the schools, and that he never attempted to "force" contracts on the schools.

In his most conciliatory tones since the Baltimore Teachers Union's call last week for his resignation, he extended a peace offering to the union and teachers.

Before a Tuesday night secret meeting between Dr. Amprey and union leaders at BTU President Irene Dandridge's Howard County home, Dr. Amprey said he had no idea morale had sunk so low. It ebbed to new lows, many say, after he sent a May 26 letter to all 10,000 school system employees warning of a "considerable number" of layoffs and reassignments.

He stressed again yesterday that the letter was aimed primarily not at teachers, but headquarters staff. The superintendent estimated Monday that 350 positions -- including 240 teaching posts -- could be affected by changes.

But he added that the letter "could have been more humanistic."

"I think as I saw that letter -- I got one at home -- I didn't like geting it. I didn't like the way it read," he said, adding:

"Morale has plummeted and is much worse than I was aware."

At the Tuesday meeting, he said, "We agreed that in all of my opportunities to speak in the presence of teachers, to make sure that I do all I can to make them aware of their importance in this effort and their work.

Also yesterday, Dr. Amprey:

* Promised to try to eventually give nine non-EAI schools the same amount of money per-pupil as those run by the Minneapolis company to compare the results between those run by the company and others given the same funding.

* Agreed to work closely with union representatives to scrutinize discipline policies and devise strategies to make schools safer. "Without a doubt, far and away, the biggest challenge is one of safety, of violence, disruption," he said, pointing to a common perception: "The schools are not safe, that it's a matter of time before [students or teachers] would be victims of some kind of act of violence or some kind of pretty ugly act of disruption."

* Establish a labor-management "monitoring team" to oversee the shift next fall to school-based management, moving staff, money and authority from headquarters to schools.

* Work with the union to set up guidelines on selecting and training members of teams of school staff, parents and community leaders who will make decisions at schools as part of the shift to school-based management.

Ms. Dandridge yesterday welcomed the superintendent's "olive branch."

"If Dr. Amprey gives us 90 percent of what he has proposed today, I will be happy, and my teachers will be happy."

But, she added: "My position has to be we'll have to wait and see. There were a lot of issues that we dealt with and most of them he seems to have covered at his news conference. If we get him to remember those things as he goes about his job of operating Baltimore City public schools, we will have gone a long way toward making teachers' lives easier but also accomplishing some of the goals he's talking about."

The secret meeting, called by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, came a day after about 250 protesters, led by the union, marched from school headquarters to City Hall, chanting, "The superintendent must go!"

School employees, parents and members of other city unions denounced the May 26 letter. Protesters also accused Dr. Amprey of continually expanding the role of for-profit EAI in city schools, taking millions in taxpayers' money from other schools to "subsidize" the company.

Union leaders and teachers said Dr. Amprey has blamed them for failing schools, without taking into account what they view as real reasons: huge classes, lack of adequate funding, low salaries, a breakdown in discipline.

Looking back over what many at North Avenue headquarters have dubbed "hell week," Dr. Amprey said the protest and dissension pained him. "It's kind of emotional," he said. "Everybody wants to be loved. I want to be loved, too. I don't want people saying I should resign."

Often-bitter contract negotiations also have stalled after five months, and the union views Dr. Amprey's letter in part as an attempt to influence the outcome of contract talks while he seeks to increase his $125,000 salary to $150,000.

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