City-state school deal would end suits Reorganization by fall would head off court action scheduled Nov. 3

January 17, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Lyle Denniston, JoAnna Daemmrich, David Folkenflik and Peter Jensen contributed to this article.

Working behind the scenes on a plan for joint control of Baltimore's ailing public schools, city and state negotiators feel strong pressure to reach agreement quickly so they can install a new school government by September.

"We have three alternatives: One is to do nothing, and to allow the children in Baltimore to continue not making the kind of gains they deserve," said Christopher Cross, state school board president and lead negotiator for the state. "Second is to go into a bankruptcy situation, a receivership. Third is to find some new and beneficial way to deal with the issues that bring together the best resources the city, the state and the private sector can provide."

Their still-sketchy proposal, described in an article in The Sun yesterday, would eliminate the school superintendent and school board. These would be replaced by a chief executive officer, a chief academic officer, a chief executive officer and the "Baltimore School Authority" -- a governing board selected by city and state officials.

Maryland would increase Baltimore's share of school aid by an unspecified amount in exchange for a role in managing the schools.

Negotiators say the proposal would settle several major education lawsuits. If tried, the suits could lead to Baltimore losing control of its schools, in part or in total, something that negotiators, including Mr. Cross, hope to avoid.

The judges handling the separate disputes that have been unfolding in federal and state court have taken the unusual step of merging them -- at least through some pre-trial stages, and possibly through the actual trials. They have set a Nov. 3 trial date to hear the disputes jointly.

Yesterday, some officials suggested that the judges' action helped reinvigorate talks that had dragged through fall off-again, on-again.

Many obstacles remain to making the proposal a pact. The toughest are winning financing from the state and support from all parties to the lawsuits. These issues were to have been discussed last week by the governor and the mayor, but the meeting was postponed as a result of the blizzard.

"At this stage everyone seems to be committed to making change in the system so that we can improve the quality of education in Baltimore," Gov. Parris N. Glendening said yesterday.

While Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke declined to comment yesterday, other politicians scrambled to respond, and ministers and community leaders hastily met to discuss the proposal.

The responses ranged from hope to repudiation.

"The status quo is not good news for our children," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee. "If they're trying to come up with a new partnership between the city and the state, more power to them."

She said additional funding could be secured for the city's schools if legislators are confident the money allocated is spent as intended.

"I'm not rushing to judgment," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, who has in the past advanced the idea of letting a CEO run the school system.

"It's clear to me that my colleagues want what is best for the children of Baltimore City, and key to that is the management of a $700 million enterprise with over 10,000 employees that serves more than 100,000 students."

A few legislators said they tentatively support state intervention in Baltimore schools. But they are stunned that Mr. Glendening would consider committing millions of additional dollars at a time when he is proposing a state budget that has almost no increase from last year's levels.

Others strongly oppose the proposal, saying local officials should mind their own management. State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat from Prince George's County, called the negotiations an admission of failure by the city.

"For the mayor and City Council, I think, before they can turn over the school system to the state of Maryland, they should resign from office and declare there is no such thing as the city of Baltimore," he said.

City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III complained that the negotiations were "behind closed doors," and he made clear that he opposed abolishing the local school board and giving up control of the public schools.

"We know we should do better, we must do better," Mr. Bell said. "But by the same token, there's no guarantee that if there's some sort of state takeover that the schools would get better. There's no magic solution."

Aware that they have angered many constituents and interest groups by not including them, some participants in the negotiations say secrecy was needed to bring together key government officials and educators.

Now that the plan is in the open, they are contacting parties involved in the lawsuits and interest groups to win consensus.

One group outside the talks is the Maryland chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which last summer sued the state on behalf of city school children to win an increase in education funding. Yesterday, Stuart Comstock-Gay, its executive director, urged on the negotiators.

"Whether change happens through a court order or an agreement really doesn't matter," said Mr. Comstock-Gay.

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