Clash over fate of minds City schools, state powers on collision course

February 18, 1996|By KATHY LALLY

Philip H. Farfel, president of the Baltimore school board, has tired of the abuse heaped on the Baltimore school system over the past several weeks as news leaked out that secret negotiations are under way aimed at increasing state control over the schools.

It's unfair, he says, when the system actually is the envy of other urban school districts because of its progress and innovation. It has the best superintendent in the country, he says, and is consistently improving student achievement.

Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools, nearly chokes on this assessment. "That's absolute denial of reality," says Dr. Grasmick, who has a lead role in the negotiations, which face a March 1 deadline.

She describes a school system in disarray, laboring under poor leadership, mismanagement and declining student achievement. And she feels a personal responsibility to improve it, which has led to the state initiative to assume more control in an unprecedented "partnership" proposal.

"I'm baffled," says Dr. Farfel. "I just don't know why we're getting so much criticism."

For years, the city school system and state power structure lived their separate realities in relative harmony. Today, they are on a collision course, put there by disparate forces that are gaining momentum, propelled by a potent mixture of personality, politics and philosophical differences.

Everything is at stake in the gathering battle: the lives of 113,000 schoolchildren; the future of the education department, Baltimore's largest city agency; racial sensibilities; power, and who will wield it; and even the ultimate health of the city itself.

The city and state are struggling for control of the schools against a landscape that has shifted dramatically in the past few years.

The state legislature has lost all confidence in the city school system, as the state education department has begun demanding higher achievement from the schools. A long-festering lawsuit over special education in the city has created enormous pressure for change, and the schools badly need more money. This year the system has a $32 million deficit.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been trying to turn the collision into a meeting of the minds with negotiations directed at a city-state "partnership," which critics in the city view as a state takeover. If a deal is struck, the state would take more responsibility over the schools, perhaps by assuming power of approval over top management.

They have little time left. State Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has issued what amounts to a deadline of March 1. If they don't reach an agreement by then, he says, it will be too late to introduce any enabling legislation in this year's General Assembly session.

"We're at a critical juncture," says Mr. Rawlings, a long-time advocate for the Baltimore school system who has joined the ranks of those who have lost their patience. "For all the parties, political and otherwise, this is the year."

Perhaps more than anyone, Mr. Rawlings personifies the remarkable shift in perception that has occurred in the past few years. Mr. Rawlings, who represents West Baltimore in the legislature, was a natural advocate for the school system. And he has something the city needs - influence. As Appropriations chairman, he is in a position to argue for more financial aid for schools.

Baltimore faces the challenge of educating most of the state's poor with one of the state's weakest tax bases. The city has $124,290 of taxable income per pupil, compared with $394,980 in Montgomery County and $282,594 in Howard County. It spends $2,000 less per pupil than Montgomery, which means an average city classroom of 30 children has $60,000 less to spend.

As he argued for more money for the city, Delegate Rawlings was confronted time and again by legislators who complained it was foolish to appropriate more when the city was mismanaging its finances.

Mr. Rawlings wanted to repair the school system's credibility. In early 1990, he convened a clandestine group to assess the school system. On May 22, 1990, he sent a sternly worded memo to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and the school board.

"It is clear to me that the infusion of additional resources and new programs alone will not bring about the long-term positive benefits we all desire," Mr. Rawlings wrote. "The culture of the administrative organization must be altered."

The Rawlings group described a school system that had little sense of urgency or individual initiative, and excessive top-down control resulting in submissive, complacent employees more interested in maintaining the status quo than taking risks that might produce change.

Nothing happened. Slowly, Mr. Rawlings moved from advocacy to opposition. Six years later, he is still awaiting a change in the culture at school headquarters, he says. His patience is gone.

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