School chief's days are up Amprey not expected to be offered role under city-state deal

'Idea is to start fresh'

Superintendent plans to finish school year but leaves door open

November 15, 1996|By Jean Thompson and Eric Siegel | Jean Thompson and Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

After six years of risk-taking reform ventures interspersed with legal and political battles, Baltimore schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey is on his way out.

Amprey is not expected to be given -- or to seek -- a position in the reorganized hierarchy that would be created by this week's tentative settlement of funding and management of city public schools.

Amprey is under contract through June 1998 as head of the troubled 110,000-student school system.

Yesterday, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said Amprey "is clearly going to stay with us and do all that he can for the children for this academic year, and then he will be thinking about some options for the future."

Schmoke said he has not demanded Amprey's resignation but expects the superintendent to tell him what he plans to do "in the next couple of weeks."

That timetable roughly coincides with the Nov. 25 deadline negotiators have to finalize the tentative agreement, which addressed lawsuits filed by parents of city schoolchildren.

"I don't want this matter, the leadership issue, to linger for months," Schmoke said at his weekly news conference.

Although Amprey indicated that he'd like to stay on through the end of his contract, he acknowledged that the coming changes would make it difficult for him to remain.

"There are details that have to be worked out, and I'm smart enough to know that some of those details have to do with me," he said.

Amprey, who has enjoyed the support of the mayor and his appointed school board, also said he didn't know if he would want to work for the proposed new school system, where control would be shared by the city and by state officials, many of whom have been hostile toward him.

"For the first time in my career, I'm facing the possibility of working with an adversarial school board," Amprey said. "I think the decision that the mayor and I are talking about is whether I want to put up with such a situation."

Amprey, whose tenure is already twice the average for a big-city school chief, earns $140,000 a year. The city likely will have to buy out the remainder of his contract if he is asked to step down.

Those familiar with the continuing negotiations said the final settlement will not bar Amprey from applying for a top position, but they doubt he would be granted one.

"It's pretty clear to me personally that the idea is to start fresh," said state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the powerful Senate budget committee and an adviser to the settlement discussions. "I have an expectation that they would be looking for someone new."

Under the tentative agreement, the city would get $254 million in new school aid over five years and give the state a stronger say in running the schools.

The negotiators have said their final agreement will include a timetable for management changes.

A school board would be chosen jointly by the mayor and governor from city residents screened by the state school board.

The new city board would hire a chief executive officer to run the school system, replacing the superintendent. The chief would in turn hire academic and financial officers. The new board and management team would draft a master reform plan and budget ZTC for the schools.

Many of these management changes are unlikely to occur until spring, when the General Assembly would create the new structure and provide the additional funding.

That means the new school board might not be ready to begin its search for a new chief until nearly June, the end of the academic year. A search for a superintendent can take six

months or more, making it likely that the city would need an interim leader.

One recent state version of the settlement specifies that the interim superintendent may not apply to keep the job.

Another factor working against Amprey's keeping the job is the attitude of some key parties in the negotiations, including advocates for special education students and one of the two judges mediating the settlement.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who oversees the school system's efforts to improve services for disabled students, has held Amprey in civil contempt of court for not fulfilling pledges to make timely improvements.

Special-education troubles, which Amprey inherited but was unable to solve, marred his tenure, as did an ill-fated experiment with Education Alternatives Inc. in school privatization.

Still, he is credited with incrementally raising test scores and the successful Barclay Elementary School partnership with the private Calvert School, which he initially opposed. Yesterday, Schmoke seemed almost to be eulogizing Amprey's tenure.

"On one hand he has an awful lot of progress that he can point to," Schmoke said of the superintendent. "He can also point to the fact that he is so well respected by his peers around the country. They look to work he has done in Baltimore as a model for work that can be done in other cities. They can also look to his courage in trying innovative things, to be willing to take risks. Sometimes he fails, sometimes he succeeds.

"And so Dr. Amprey knows he's done a good job. But he also knows that there have been some problems, particularly in the areas of special education, which led to the creation of almost a dual school system. And he has been operating under the threat of a contempt citation for a year or more. That wears on you.

"And so what he is doing now is just assessing his situation," Schmoke said.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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