City, state 'partners' may square off in court Schools: Opening Baltimore schools Wednesday will seem quite a feat amid city and state officials' differences over management and funding of the system.

The Education Beat

September 01, 1996|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

IT'S BACK to the classroom for city school students this week -- and back to court for the school system the day after Election Day if state and city officials fail to resolve fundamental differences over management and funding.

The situation is such a mess that simply getting the schools open Wednesday will seem an accomplishment.

The governor and the mayor had an agreement; then they didn't. The governor was considering the use of revenue from slot machine gambling to aid city schools; then he wasn't.

A city-state "partnership" was to reform city schools management in return for an infusion of state funds; then it wasn't. And because it wasn't, the city lost $5.9 million in state revenue from last year's education budget. The General Assembly would withhold another $24 million from this year's budget for the same reason.

So unless Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and Gov. Parris N. Glendening strike a deal with each other and legislative leaders, the city and the state will see each other in court Nov. 6.

Among those who hope this won't happen is Nancy S. Grasmick, state superintendent of schools. Grasmick knows that the last time the city went to court for more money, the case took four years (1979-1983) to resolve, with the city losing. Moreover, the conservative Maryland Court of Appeals, which finally decided the earlier case, hasn't changed that much in 13 years.

"A court case would be very expensive and time-intensive," Grasmick said last week. She has a point. A dozen lawyers' meters are already ticking. No matter who won, a prolonged court battle would cost millions in legal fees and other expenses.

(Involved are separate school finance suits filed by the city and the American Civil Liberties Union, a state counter-suit and a long-standing special education case in federal court.)

Even if the city won a court trial, the General Assembly probably would be ordered to work out the details, Grasmick said, so why not bypass the courts and go directly to the legislature with a reform plan based on the city-state agreement?

Grasmick, of course, is not without her own interest. She was among the architects of the partnership that fell apart last month. She insisted that the proposed reform plan "isn't a state takeover," though that's what many city people think it is.

Walter G. Amprey, the city superintendent, said a trial is needed.

"It might be expensive," he said, "but the process itself will call attention to the plight of the city and its children. The nation needs to see this trial."

Fate of superintendent now in mayor's hands

In a related matter, the Baltimore mayor now has the power to do officially what Schmoke and his predecessor, William Donald Schaefer, have done unofficially for years: hire and fire the school superintendent.

A little-noticed City Charter amendment of July 1 effectively transferred the hiring and firing authority from the school board to the mayor. When a vacancy occurs at the top, the school board has 120 days to submit a list of candidates, from which the mayor makes a choice. If the board doesn't submit a list, the mayor makes the choice anyway.

And new language added to the charter, which is Baltimore's constitution, allows the mayor to "suspend, demote or dismiss the superintendent at pleasure."

The changes were proposed by a charter revision commission and approved by voters in the 1994 general election.

Since the mayor also appoints the school board, this revision gives City Hall unprecedented authority at the top administrative and policy-making levels of the school system.

So unnoticed and unremarked upon is the change that Amprey, who could be its first victim, hadn't heard of it last week.

"I think it's fine," the superintendent said. "It just makes de jure what for a long time has been de facto."

60-pound watermelon: It came from Curtis Bay

School doesn't open until Wednesday at Curtis Bay Elementary School on West Bay Avenue, but the students, and some parents and grandparents, have been working all summer on their garden.

The project, sponsored by Curtis Bay's partner in the business community, SCM Chemicals Co., this year produced a 60-pound watermelon that won a blue ribbon at the State Fair.

Paula Myers, a fifth-grade teacher, reported her students have been experimenting with giant seed varieties and have grown some field pumpkins that may reach 100 pounds.

"Everyone 'grows' from this partnership," she said.

Isn't this how a thousand science fiction films began?

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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