Special-ed tracking system may be replaced, city says

March 21, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

After investing millions of dollars and countless hours developing their third computer system for tracking special-education students, Baltimore schools might have to start over.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke says the troubled computer system -- one of the flash points in an 11-year-old lawsuit against city schools -- will be redesigned or replaced if necessary to satisfy a federal judge.

"My problem is simply that the court has indicated it does not believe the system is adequate," Mr. Schmoke said yesterday. Earlier, the mayor said Baltimore will stop fighting efforts to end the computer project, which cost $8 million to install and thousands more to redesign.

Critics charge that the system is "user-vicious" and unreliable, making it impossible for Baltimore to keep adequate records of the services provided to disabled students. Plaintiffs in the lawsuit have threatened to ask U.S. District Court Judge Marvin Garbis to remove special education services from Baltimore's control.

But Mr. Schmoke's decision -- which comes as the judge considers whether the system must be redesigned or replaced -- LTC has dismayed and outraged many of the schools' 110 special-education case managers. They say they have devoted unpaid weekend and night hours typing their nearly 17,000 files into the computer. They've already done it twice -- in 1993, they created the base of information for the first failed version of the system, and a year later, started the work all over again.

"I don't want to do it again. Don't dump this one," said Dorothy Chambers, who manages about 150 special-education students at three schools.

Consultants and school data specialists have issued conflicting reports about the computer system.

John Quane, a consultant chosen by Baltimore schools, says the system will work, given time to be fine-tuned. And, though they now say they can't discuss the situation, school officials have insisted for weeks that the system is a success.

They said the computer has:

* Compiled a report revealing that the files of about 1,200 of Baltimore's estimated 17,000 special-education students had not been accounted for. Special education managers began using that information to track down the hand-written case files and locate the students.

* Flagged important dates for case managers, helping them schedule special-education services that must be provided on a timetable set by federal law.

* Identified special-education students who had changed schools but who were not receiving services because their old case files had not followed them.

But a court-appointed consultant, who was paid $60,000 by Baltimore, has called the data "rotten" and the system "user-vicious."

The computer's reports cannot be trusted, says the court's data adviser, Andrew Johnson-Laird. He says its main flaw is that data was cobbled together from inaccurate information in the two previous systems used by the schools.

One of those systems was made of IBM-compatible computers for about 180 schools and school-management software purchased in the 1993-94 school year. About $6 million was for the equipment, the rest for software and service. Its purpose was to organize schoolwide records, including attendance, test scores and lunch data.

One component of the program, for special-education case management, proved inadequate, said Terry Laster, the former IBM data manager who joined Baltimore schools to redesign it.

In mid-1994, he merged information from that system and another used for special education. From it, he and his staff designed a new system, with suggestions from special-education staff, school officials and the court-appointed monitor for special education. From October to December, the case managers started typing in data from their files.

"If they scrap this, people are going to go berserk," said Linda Prudente, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Teachers Union. "People . . . who have worked so long want to know when is someone besides them going to be held accountable?"

Last week, Dr. Amprey said, "We think Terry developed a system that works, but the mood is such that everybody wants to just start over."

The "everybody" includes the court monitor, examiners from the state and the court's data consultant, who have issued negative reviews of the system. This week, Dr. Amprey and other school officials said they've been advised by attorneys not to take any position that may appear confrontational to the court.

"For $6 million you could hire 250 special-ed teachers," for a year, said mayoral candidate and City Council President Mary Pat Clarke.

She said she and other council members opposed the purchase of the original computer system but were told it was necessary because it would solve problems with special-education record-keeping.

"Basically I felt that it was extravagant from beginning to end."

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