City schools called broken, fixable Schiller tells legislators system still imperiled

November 19, 1997|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore City's public schools remain an academic and financial disaster, according to interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller.

But since the new city school board took the reins in June, nearly 300 teachers have been hired to reduce elementary school class sizes, and a focused curriculum is in the works; the district's special education department has been reorganized; and a yearly budget process that regularly spun out of control has been tamed.

Yesterday, before an unusually cordial joint hearing of the state House Appropriations and Senate Taxation and Budget committees in Annapolis, Schiller declared Baltimore's school system fixable but still broken, on the right track but perilously close to continued failure.

"In the time I've been here, I've seen too many schools that are not engaging or welcoming, too many administrators who are ill-equipped or ill-prepared, and too many teachers and administrators who work in substandard conditions," Schiller told the legislators. "But excuses for failure are no longer acceptable." During the hearing, Schiller and the board gave legislators -- and the public -- the first comprehensive update of the ambitious $30 million plan unveiled in September. The legislators -- who forged the city-state school reform partnership in April -- will sit in final judgment of the district's progress next spring, when they decide whether to kick in an additional $20 million in state aid to city schools.

The polite exchange yesterday was a marked departure from past encounters. "This is no longer an us vs. them process," said school board chairman J. Tyson Tildon.

Among their achievements under the plan, Schiller and the board claimed:

The district has hired 277 of the 399 more teachers and math and reading specialists it needs to reduce student/teacher ratios in elementary classrooms. Also, nearly 200 retired Baltimore City teachers are helping in classrooms and with tutoring.

The after-school academies designed to boost math and reading skills among elementary students opened Nov. 3; 167 of the 169 eligible schools have submitted plans for academies.

Citywide diagnostic tests have been given for the first time to all elementary students, and the results are being studied. First-year goals for improvement on the tests will be set by Dec. 1.

The district's special education department has been reorganized; a new director reports directly to Schiller. Schiller said progress in dealing with over-identification of special education students and efficient delivery of special education services has been spotty. Some personnel issues and communication goals have been worked out, but overall compliance with court-ordered reforms has not been achieved. An overall reorganization plan for the department will be reviewed by Schiller and the board by Dec. 1.

A $500 million need for capital improvements has been identified -- including new plumbing for 160 schools, new windows for 124 buildings and substantial electrical repairs to 160 facilities. Scores of schools need new boilers.

The budgeting process -- which Schiller said resulted in a $24 million deficit at the end of the last fiscal year -- has been assessed, and officials have begun to reform it. Schiller said some unfunded programs and positions that helped contribute to the deficit have been eliminated. But he could not guarantee no deficit this year. The district's financial needs outweigh available funds.

Schiller said he and the board are on target with most of their plan and will soon pick up the slack in lagging areas.

Among issues that must be worked out or fully implemented are a performance-based evaluation system for employees; additional, focused teacher training; and new automated financial and materials management systems.

School board chairman Tildon said that despite the accomplishments, legislators should not underestimate the amount of work that remains to be done -- particularly with regard to attitudes among district employees.

"Let me reinforce the reduced work ethic that existed in this district when we were appointed," Tildon said. "There was no culture of high expectations."

Legislators seemed impressed by the report and optimistic that change is being realized. However, some were concerned that the quick start could be derailed.

"Ten years ago, Ronald Reagan came to Prince George's County schools and hailed the district as a model, but today much of that effort can be called a failure," said Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Prince George's County Democrat. "How will we know your blueprint will work? Will it stay?"

Schiller said the answer to that question lies with the board and the long-term master plan, which is being drawn up. "If they stick with it and provide consistency, then it will work," he said.

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