Officials assess lessons of EAI Schmoke, Amprey say city has learned from its mistakes

November 26, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Education Alternatives Inc. may move on, but school privatization is here to stay, Baltimore officials said last week.

However, Baltimore must be a shrewder deal-maker if future school partnerships with business are to succeed, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said.

The officials said they lost much naivete about the ways of shareholders, chief executive officers and Wall Street during the partnership with EAI, which began in 1992 with a five-year contract that school board members intend to sever early with a vote Thursday.

The public officials who committed 12 city schools to the experiment in for-profit school management now say they should have slowed down, read the fine print and understood better what they were buying.

Their biggest mistake was not tying EAI's revenue or profit to its results, Mayor Schmoke and Dr. Amprey said.

"What they presented to us is not rocket science, and now it's up to us to replicate what worked and move on from here," the mayor said.

"The major lesson, for me? If I had to do it all over again, I would have given it one full academic year of planning before we fully implemented the program in the schools," Mr. Schmoke said.

"Looking back, I think that way we could have resolved a lot of the problems, such as the relationships with unions and the other groups involved in education."

The lessons learned are many and varied. Some were unexpected, he said.

"One of the difficult aspects of dealing with EAI was we had to be very sensitive to the fact that public statements about the company affect the stock prices, and this is not something that we are used to worrying about when we make education decisions."

Untangling the snarl

Also, in the same way that dismantling a building can reveal the strength or weakness of its construction, the complications of Baltimore's EAI contracts will begin to come to light as lawyers and finance officers move in this week to untangle the arrangements.

City officials did not think through the complications of buying EAI's package deal of services -- intertwined are agreements affecting instruction, cafeteria service, grounds and building maintenance, textbook purchases and computer leases -- Dr. Amprey said.

The deals will not easily be undone and replaced, he said.

xTC The city officials also bought a contract that promised achievement but was not tied to a realistic schedule that experienced educators would expect when embarking on such an ambitious school reform project, Dr. Amprey said.

Solid academic gains take time, but Baltimore was beguiled by EAI's marketing claims of immediate results and then saw test scores turn upward only in the last year.

"That's why I am so concerned about terminating EAI now," said Dr. Amprey. "Just when we get at the point where we've demonstrated success, we're moving to cancel it. I think this year and next year would have been the best years."

Future contracts will demand "snapshots of progress" along the way, he said, referring to city schools' arrangements with Sylvan Learning Systems, Inc., which provides tutoring services.

At Sylvan's 29 centers in Baltimore schools, when students do not meet agreed-upon achievement goals, the company loses profit because it must continue to tutor the children at no extra cost to the school system.

Before taking on future partnerships, Dr. Amprey said, "I would bring on board -- or hope the city solicitor would bring on board -- corporate lawyers who understand business contracting. We have a long way to go to understand the business way of thinking, although we've made some steps in that direction by hiring a chief financial officer."

Lessons learned

At his news conference announcing the city's plan to cancel the contract, and again in interviews last week, Dr. Amprey said the lesson is not to shun for-profit school management, as some foes would wish. Rather, he said, the lesson is to build a better contract.

"I don't think that we are ruling out ever having a relationship with EAI again, although there are no plans to do anything with EAI in the immediate future," he said.

"I would be willing to re-contract with them, but we'd have to have real clear benchmarks and real clear performance standards."

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