Says Grasmick: "It was shocking beyond belief that that kind of behavior was tolerated and that there was no sanctioning of that individual's behavior." The office is vigorously seeking reimbursement and has managed to recoup $13.3 million in just the first 10 months of the past fiscal year.
A more pernicious effect of the system's culture was its resistance to real, cost-efficient reform, especially when the impetus came from outsiders. When the Calvert School, a costly Baltimore private school, tested its nationally renowned curriculum in one of the city's elementary schools, it produced startling advances in achievement and drew visitors from as far away as Japan. But the superintendent in place when the program was installed branded it a "rich man's" curriculum. "The school system," recalls Robert C. Embry, whose Abell Foundation helped fund the experiment, "resisted it to the death."
The one reform program the school administration did adopt system-wide is an Afrocentric self-help regimen marketed by the Efficacy Institute of Lexington, Mass., and embraced by other black-majority school districts. Through a sequence of four-day, $10,500 group training seminars for teachers and staff, the institute hopes to spark school districts to extract better performance from both teachers and students by promoting a greater belief in the power of individuals to succeed no matter what their personal circumstances.
Proponents say these seminars carry the force of revelation. Attendees have been known to stand and cheer like converts at a tent meeting. But critics, careful always to applaud Efficacy's central objective of raising expectations, wonder whether the $1 million Baltimore spent on the program equivalent to the starting salaries of 40 teachers was money wisely used. "It's an example of what is wrong with urban education," says Embry. "It was put in without any evidence of its working without any evidence even expected."
The contours of Baltimore's school-funding debate have begun to change. There are still cries for more money, but Baltimore's schools are at last being forced to acknowledge that money alone can't turn a failing system around.
Its schools are in the first phase of a major reorganization, the result of a deal struck last spring between the city, the state and Baltimore's federal court that reflects an increasing belief in the power of good management to improve both financial and academic performance. The deal provides the school system with an additional $254 million over the next five years but requires sweeping changes in the way it does business.
As part of the deal, for example, the city dismissed the school board and replaced it, requiring that at least four of the new members have "a high level of expertise" in a big business, nonprofit organization or government agency. Most striking, the plan holds the new board "directly accountable for improving academic achievement."
The plan also eliminates the job of superintendent, replacing it with the post of chief executive officer and making the CEO's continued employment "contingent upon demonstrable and continuous improvement." (The board is searching for a candidate to fill the post.) In short, the plan demands a level of accountability never before required of anyone within the Baltimore system.
But the new plan only puts into writing what reformers have increasingly come to recognize: that good managers can make a huge difference, no matter how much money they have to work with.
Leonard Hamm, the new chief of Baltimore's school police, says he has seen firsthand how a talented principal can reverse the decline of a school. "I'm an overly simplistic guy," he says, "but man, it's not rocket science. It takes one person saying, 'This isn't going to happen.'"