A teacher's Tesseract epilogue Transfer: When Deverne Coleman opposed the privatization experiment at her school, she was moved against her will. She has won an appeal, but the outcome is uncertain.

The Education Beat

August 18, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

TESSERACT, THE city's four-year experiment with school privatization whose last chapter was written with termination of the program March 6, has an epilogue that should not go by unnoticed.

Call it the Dee Coleman matter. It concerns Deverne Coleman, 49, a first-grade teacher who was transferred against her will from one of the showcase Tesseract schools after she went public with her opposition to the program.

Coleman's "administrative transfer" from Edgewood Elementary to Edgecombe Circle Elementary at the end of the 1994-1995 school year was hardly noticed, even in the school system. She was not fired, after all, nor did her exemplary 24-year career in Baltimore classrooms suffer. No one ever challenged her skills as a teacher.

But it was the principle of the thing. At the end of 1994, she addressed a City Council hearing on Tesseract and its profit-making vendor from Minnesota, Education Alternatives Inc. Her dissenting views had been published in The Sun and a publication of the American Federation of Teachers. She also was the Baltimore Teachers Union's building representative at Edgewood, and the BTU was an early Tesseract opponent.

None of this pleased Coleman's principal, who often referred to Edgewood as "my school" and who was called upon by EAI and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey to make Tesseract look as good as possible. That year -- 1994-1995 -- was a tough one for EAI. Test scores in the nine Tesseract schools were declining, The Sun was poking about, and spin control was in order. The city handled the Coleman problem by spinning her off to a non-Tesseract school.

Coleman filed a grievance. Last month, she was vindicated by a neutral hearing examiner who deemed her transfer "arbitrary, capricious and illegal" and recommended her reinstatement at Edgewood.

She may yet lose. A school board spokeswoman said the board will act on the examiner's recommendation next month. It could back the administration, in which case Coleman could appeal to the state Board of Education and eventually to the courts. (The school system's personnel office, however, has assigned Coleman back to Edgewood when schools open Sept. 4.)

Teachers in Maryland have limited defense against involuntary transfers. The Court of Special Appeals has ruled in a Howard County case that officials need only cite "programmatic" reasons for moving a teacher.

The Edgewood principal and her bosses tried to make that argument in the Coleman case, but the evidence was overwhelming that Coleman was transferred for her union activity and for publicly criticizing the emperor's new Tesseract label.

"The bottom line was that [Tesseract] didn't improve education," she said last week. But she called her victory a "shallow" one. She's going to return to a school where she's not at the top of the popularity list, and she said she's learned "a sad lesson about the [school] administration's regard for the First Amendment. The next time you want to hear from teachers about what's really happening in city schools, don't be surprised if no one shows up."

25 years later, a story of schools sounds the same

Baltimore schools face the old problems of the entrenched, centralized bureaucracy; the severe reading deficiencies that are documented yearly in tests; a [middle] school system that is outmoded and unmanageable; severe financial difficulties; a truancy problem that reaches as high as 20 percent in the high schools, and many others.

A sentence prepared for The Sun's back-to-school coverage this fall? No, one written by me exactly 25 years ago. Only the word "middle" has been substituted for "junior high" to accurately reflect one of the few lasting reforms in education over the quarter-century.

That year, 1971, was something of a watershed in city schools. Enrollment approached 200,000 (some 85,000 more than will begin the fall term next month), an all-time high, and the opening of four secondary schools -- Lake Clifton, Southwestern,

Walbrook and Northern Parkway -- was expected to relieve severe crowding.

A new "magnet" curriculum, with each high school featuring an academic or technical specialty, was highly touted but never really got off the ground. Baltimore anxiously awaited a new tTC superintendent, Roland N. Patterson, who was to be fired three years later.

Maryland public schools were in the midst of an enrollment surge similar to the one produced in the 1990s by the baby boomers. (By contrast, Catholic schools were in an enrollment slump.) Baltimore County opened its first middle school in Lansdowne, while Carroll opened Westminster High School.

The teacher unions were feeling their way with collective bargaining rights won only three years previously. A beginning Baltimore teacher earned $7,750, or $29,643 in 1996 dollars. The 1996-1997 starting pay is in fact $24,684, which means a beginning teacher has lost $5,000 to inflation.

At the 10th year of the master's degree scale, the loss to inflation is about $4,000, while at the 15th step of the master's scale (after a large seniority raise), the loss to inflation is slightly less than $3,000 over the 25 years.

In 1971, there was talk about eliminating the "impotent" school board, but Kalman R. Hettleman, a new member, defended the board as a "watchdog body."

A Greyhound bus ticket to Philadelphia cost $5.05 -- $12 today -- while a plane ticket to the same city was $16. Today it is $209.

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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