Judge postpones city schools trial talks go on

State offers more aid, but issues remain

November 06, 1996|By Jean Thompson and Eric Siegel | Jean Thompson and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore judge yesterday delayed the start of a landmark trial over the funding and management of Baltimore's public schools in hopes that with more time the parties can craft a settlement.

After two weeks of intensive negotiations, and on the eve of the trial scheduled to start today, the state sweetened its offer of additional aid to city schools to $254 million over five years, sources said.

However, the state also sought new, immediate limits on the power of the city school board and superintendent, restrictions that the city finds objectionable, those same sources said.

The state also proposed a raft of provisions that would revamp the bureaucracy in charge of educating the city's 17,000 students who have physical and learning disabilities.

Disagreements over these new issues could not be resolved before the trial was to start, the sources said. A postponement also gives lawyers for all of the parties in the case extra time to prepare for opening arguments -- in the event that they reach an impasse instead of settlement, sources said.

In announcing the postponement of the trial until Tuesday, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan noted yesterday that the lawyers involved in negotiations are the same ones who would be involved in trying the case.

"You can't try and negotiate," Kaplan said.

He declined to speculate on the odds that a settlement would be reached before the new trial date.

"Where there's life, there's hope," he said.

At the center of the complex case is the question of who is responsible for the dismal academic performance of Baltimore's schoolchildren: the state, for not providing enough resources to educate children who bring to the classroom a multitude of social problems, or the city, for exercising poor management and oversight.

The case is actually three lawsuits that have been combined and are to be heard jointly by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis and Kaplan in an unusual federal-state partnership. One suit deals with special education service for city schoolchildren. The other two suits concern the state's role in funding and management of city schools.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was cautious in his assessment of the delay.

"The problem is that we have yet to reach an agreement that clearly distinguishes a partnership from a take over. Although money is part of the settlement, it's not the only issue that currently divides us," Schmoke said. He would not comment on any specifics in the proposals.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he is still hopeful that a settlement can be reached.

The state's latest offer of additional aid is $48 million larger than its previous one, but still far short of the sum sought by the city and the American Civil Liberties Union for the schools. They have been asking for nearly $100 million a year for five years as supplements to the state's annual allocations for schools.

The new offer provides an additional $30 million in fiscal 1998 and $50 million in each year through 2002. In addition, it includes $24.2 million in extra financing for school renovation and construction.

The state provided $430 million of the city's $653 million schools budget this year, plus about $8.7 million for school repairs.

City school management changes included in the state's proposal would take effect in March, when the Maryland General Assembly would approve the budget. These include replacing the school board and schools superintendent.

One of the sticking points in the state's latest offer is a request to restrict current school leaders' ability to enter into contracts and change personnel during the interim months, sources said.

The latest proposals related to special education would dismantle some, but not all, of the superstructure of management overseeing services for disabled students -- layers of management created by the city's past compromises and orders by Garbis that have come in the federal case.

Affected would be a team of managers who review special education policies and spending, a federal monitor assigned to Baltimore by the court, and an administrator for special education whose current powers equal those of a superintendent.

During the give and take of negotiations in recent days, the state has rejected a proposal from the city seeking new sources of revenue to improve on what the state can provide, such as slot machines, sources said.

The postponement comes during negotiations, initiated by Kaplan two weeks ago, among lawyers for the city, the state, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Maryland Disability Law Center.

For more than a year, the city and state had been unable to reach agreement on proposals to restructure the city's school system and increase its budget by millions of dollars in school aid.

In late July, it seemed that Schmoke and Glendening had reached an agreement, but the accord fell apart when the governor said he would oppose any effort to use revenue from slot machines to fund schools.

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