Another crisis, another opportunity

January 28, 1996|By Sara Engram

WHEN STATE officials designed Maryland's school-reform initiative, they knew they had to include consequences for failure. For under-performing schools, ''reconstitution,'' a purposely ambiguous threat, was the answer. That ambiguity is proving useful.

This is the third year in which the state Department of Education has targeted schools for reconstitution. But this year's list -- 35 schools in Baltimore, one in Anne Arundel County and one in Somerset County -- far surpasses last year's list of three, or 1994's list of two failing schools.

It also exceeds anything reform planners ever dreamed of facing. If anyone feared ''reconstitution'' would mean an outright state takeover of a school, sheer numbers now dispel that notion. The state simply doesn't have the personnel to manage such a feat, even if it wanted to.

The very magnitude of the challenge facing the city and state is reason enough for talks aimed at devising some kind of new partnership for managing the city schools. Neither the city nor the state can fix the schools alone.

Like reconstitution, talks aimed at forming a new partnership -- initially undertaken to settle outstanding lawsuits -- also raise questions about a state ''takeover'' of city schools. But an outright takeover is more than the state wants or needs.

What state officials envision is a management structure that can assure more accountability for funding, for student achievement and staff development. They want evidence that increasing school funding for the city will pay off. Indeed, they have to be able to point to progress in order to pry more dollars out of the legislature.

Even so, the reconstitution list has inevitably heightened tensions between the city and state. Each year, city officials have attempted to use reconstitution as leverage for more state funding.

If the state is demanding improvements, school officials say,

it will have to pay for them.

Unfortunately, that reasoning will no longer fly very far.

On Friday, legislators in Annapolis heard testimony indicating that little progress has been made on implementing management reforms in the city schools. An independent consultant reported that, despite specific legislative demands for ''substantial progress'' toward goals that had been mutually agreed on, city school officials have failed to implement new procedures.

A realistic demand

The legislature's demand for fiscal and management accountability may be a ''tough love'' approach, but it is also realistic. Baltimore City public schools already get about one-fifth of all state dollars for school aid -- and more funding per pupil than nine other districts . With money tight, every jurisdiction wants more state aid, and taxpayers want assurance that the money is being spent wisely.

Lawmakers, especially those devoted to the best interests of the city, are increasingly alarmed that city schools can't seem to manage basic administrative tasks that are taken for granted in every other system, such as putting in place a comprehensive personnel-evaluation system.

An example: After years of prodding, and eventually a specific demand from the General Assembly, initial plans for an evaluation system were announced last fall. But planning is not the same as implementation, and that's where the city falls short.

This was a rough week for the school superintendent, Walter G. Amprey Jr., and his staff -- a tough legislative hearing, a long list of failing schools, a badly received plan for docking school personnel 10 days' pay, and a court hearing in which the state reported it has no confidence that the city school system, as presently structured, is capable of enforcing court orders in a special-education lawsuit.

Even for a system accustomed to one crisis after another, that's a lot of problems. But what better time for a real transformation, one that goes much deeper than the perennial experimental programs that usually pass for reform?

The convergence of several crises at once may prove to be the best prod for working out a city-state partnership that addresses not just the funding issue, but also the many roadblocks to reform that silt up any system as beleaguered as the Baltimore City public schools.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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