City, state settle on school aid Tentative deal adds $254 million to city, expands state control

'A true compromise'

Court action avoided

officials cheer, but some concerns arise

November 13, 1996|By Jean Thompson and Eric Siegel | Jean Thompson and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Thomas W. Waldron contributed to this article.

Ending their long and bitter dispute over the performance of Baltimore's public schools, officials have reached a tentative agreement to funnel $254 million in new state aid to the city and to give the state a strong say in who runs the system.

The agreement -- announced yesterday in Baltimore Circuit Court after three weeks of marathon negotiations on the eve of a scheduled trial -- settles three combined lawsuits over the funding and management of city schools, but it leaves the fate of city schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey in limbo.

City and state officials, who had labored unsuccessfully for more than a year to forge a settlement, hailed the deal as a victory for the city's schoolchildren, but concerns were raised by others.

Some parents, educators and administrators wondered whether it was enough to significantly improve low-achieving city schools, and one legislative leader said he did not know where the state would find the additional money.

No one was happier about the agreement than two city parents who embraced in the courtroom after yesterday's announcement.

"I'm going to run outside around Druid Hill Park and I'm going to shout, 'The children won! The children won!' " said Roxanne Bartee-El, the mother of three city schoolchildren and a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits seeking more state aid.

"You don't know how happy I am," added Keith Bradford, a father of two city schoolchildren and another plaintiff. "I'm hoping that more resources will be available so there will be books for every child to take home."

The agreement, to be finalized by Nov. 25, calls for the city to get $254 million in new state aid over the next five years and for the mayor and governor to jointly appoint a new school board from a list of city residents screened by the state school board.

In turn, the new school board will select a chief executive officer, who will then pick academic and financial managers. The board and the new managers will then decide how the additional money will be spent.

Currently, the mayor alone appoints the school board and hires the superintendent.

The final, Nov. 25 agreement will include a timetable for the management changeover, negotiators said.

Under the tentative agreement, existing school board members and Amprey could apply for new posts, but no one is guaranteed a position, officials said.

Amprey, who has 18 months left his contract, said he had not been told anything about his future but signaled his willingness to remain in his $140,000-a-year job.

"I am trying to focus on running the schools with the resources they've given me until I hear differently," he said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who has stood firmly behind his superintendent, declined yesterday to say whether he wanted Amprey to have a role in the reorganization.

"What I want to do is to make sure that we get the very best for the children," the mayor said. "That means getting these agreements in place. Then we can address individuals."

Schmoke added of the agreement: "This is one of the most positive developments for the children in over a decade."

Gov. Parris N. Glendening was equally ebullient. "Today's agreement combines new management with increased resources, and that is very good news for the children and teachers in classrooms throughout the city," Glendening, who is in Asia on a trade mission, said in a statement.

The agreement calls for the city to receive an extra $30 million next year and $50 million a year for the next four years from the state, plus an added $24 million for school repairs.

Currently, Baltimore receives $430 million a year in state aid, about two-thirds of its $653 million annual school budget, plus about $8.7 million in construction funds.

Once before in the tortured history of the disputes, a tentative agreement was announced only to unravel days later.

Although they stressed the fragile nature of the latest agreement, officials expressed confidence that it would be different this time.

"We wouldn't be announcing anything if we didn't think it was real," said Evelyn O. Cannon, the state's chief of litigation.

The case consolidates lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the city against the state, saying Baltimore schools were underfunded, and a 1984 action brought by the Maryland Disability Law Center, charging the city with failing to properly educate disabled students.

The state's response was that the problem with city schools was poor management, not a lack of funding.

By settling a case that promised to expose both management failures and inadequate funding in an open courtroom, the parties avoided the issue of who is to blame for the low test scores of city schoolchildren.

In early negotiations, the state had offered a total of $50 million to settle the case while the city at one point asked for $253 million a year.

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