Mayor orders changes in EAI contract

March 17, 1995|By Jean Thompson and JoAnna Daemmrich | Jean Thompson and JoAnna Daemmrich,Sun Staff Writers Sun staff writer Gary Gately contributed to this article.

Stung by escalating attacks on Baltimore's school system and its leadership, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke intervened dramatically yesterday, demanding a revision of the Education Alternatives Inc. contract and an overhaul of the district's special-education programs.

Mayor Schmoke ordered the changes to shore up a school system increasingly beset by criticism here and in Annapolis. He announced yesterday that he will:

* Renegotiate the controversial five-year contract with the for-profit Education Alternatives Inc., requiring measurable improvements in student attendance and achievement at the city's nine "Tesseract" schools.

* End the contract altogether this summer if an independent evaluation of the EAI program shows no significant gains in pupil performance.

* Appoint a deputy superintendent with sweeping powers to manage special-education services, the subject of a federal lawsuit. The deputy will report to the mayor as well as to Superintendent Walter G. Amprey.

* Admit that the district's new $6 million computer system is unable to track special-education cases, as required by law, and must be fixed or replaced.

* Require school principals and teachers to abide by special-education laws and to improve overall academic achievement within the district. Those not measuring up could face dismissal.

The mayor's actions, which were seen by many as a way of deflecting criticism of the city's schools and of EAI in an election year, came in a week when his superintendent acknowledged that the city school district is "under siege."

Plaintiffs in an 11-year-old federal suit over services for disabled children had threatened to ask a judge to take over all 178 public schools. Baltimore also is facing a skeptical state legislature, which this week voted to block millions of dollars in aid to the city's schools. Critics of EAI had stepped up their complaints after the company released a report showing that students made notable gains only in math.

Dr. Amprey said the mayor's intervention in school management, especially in choosing and empowering a new deputy, is welcome despite its potential awkwardness. "I understand it, and I am going to cooperate with it," he said.

'Not enough' progress

Almost three years after he enthusiastically embraced Baltimore's school-privatization venture, Mr. Schmoke praised EAI for providing better janitorial, accounting and food services, but said such progress was "not enough."

"Based on EAI's own information about academic performance, I think there is a need to change this contract significantly," the mayor said. "Based on their own data, they are doing well in math. But that's not enough."

In late October, the mayor said the future of EAI would depend on the results of an evaluation by the Center for Educational Research at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. The center is evaluating Tesseract under a three-year, $207,560 city contract.

Yesterday, Mr. Schmoke said the Tesseract agreement must require better student performance at no greater cost to the city. Where it will affect them will probably be at the profit level. If we set some goals, and those goals are not met, they will have to take some of the money and plow it back into the schools."

He called for revising the contract before the next school year. He also said he would cancel the EAI experiment if the independent evaluation finds no significant gains.

Philip E. Geiger, division president of EAI, said the company welcomes the mayor's request because it has been working to set and meet academic standards for its schools.

But he said those standards do not have to be written into the contract.

Lack of oversight

Mr. Geiger said, however, that EAI's progress was being handicapped by the firm's lack of managerial oversight over Baltimore's teaching staff and administration.

Teachers and administrators currently must serve two masters, he said, the district administration and EAI. Each has different standards, he said.

"If he's saying I need faster progress and greater achievement, I'm saying we can deliver that," Mr. Geiger said. However, he added, "We can create much faster and more substantial improvement when the employees are ours."

Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union, disagreed.

"That's a cop-out," she said. "Other schools are increasing achievement using school-system personnel. It's typical of EAI's teacher-bashing mentality."

Applause, and criticism

Mr. Schmoke's plan to renegotiate the contract drew applause yesterday from Tesseract's harshest critics. He also was chided by those who say academic goals should have been spelled out in the original contract.

Said Ralph Moore, a member of the City Council's new oversight committee for scrutinizing the spending and progress of EAI: "It's just sort of amazing to me that they were able to get three years of city money without having to show results. It's a lot of money."

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