Special education battle continuing City schools seek full control

lawyers for students want voice

October 05, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Robert Booker was hired this summer to head Baltimore's public schools, but does he really have the authority to manage the system?

Can he negotiate a union contract with teachers? Can he write a teacher job evaluation policy, and can he hire and fire principals and high-level administrators?

Most school administrators take such power for granted.

But in Baltimore, lawyers representing special education students say they should have a say in all of those decisions and dozens of others. They are going to federal court Friday to argue for it.

It will be the latest skirmish in a 14-year legal battle over the needs of special education students, with a new city school administration taking its first crack at gaining control of its policies and day-to-day operations. The issues are complicated by personality clashes among figures who have been at war for years.

Lawyers for special education students continue to argue that city schools have done such a poor job that they cannot be trusted to make good decisions.

They are asking the court to hold the school system in contempt and fine it millions of dollars for failing to meet the deadlines of a court ordered, five-year plan to improve special education.

"Little change has yet occurred in the schools," writes Winifred DePalma, an attorney representing special education students in a court filing.

No one argues with the notion that the school system has failed many of its students with disabilities over the past decade. A lawsuit brought against the city in 1984 has documented a trail of inattention on the part of everyone from teachers to principals to the superintendent. Children of normal intelligence with minor learning disabilities sat in classrooms for 12 years and never learned to read.

They were segregated in separate classrooms and denied services such as counseling, tutoring and speech therapy.

When they didn't get those services, the school system, under court order, awarded the children computers, gift certificates and televisions in an attempt to make up for lost learning.

"A lot of real wrong things went on in the name of special education," said school board member Patricia Morris. But "there is a good-faith effort in special education now."

'Give us a break'

In essence, school officials will tell the judge: Give us a break because we have a new chief executive officer, new school board and new special education director, all of whom are determined to make a difference.

The work of that staff, the school board said, would be far more effective in helping children if officials were not buried under an avalanche of paperwork created in an attempt to document every step school officials have been required to take.

The system has had to hire hundreds of employees to fill out forms and manage the special education cases in a system where 18 percent of students have been identified as disabled.

Good goals

The five-year plan has good, reasonable goals, everyone agreed. It required regular classroom teachers to be trained to handle special education students, dictates that segregated students be placed in regular classrooms in their neighborhood schools and orders the school system to spend its money on special education more wisely.

But it is 77 pages long and has spawned 43 subplans that fill several filing cabinets.

It has been compared to a cake recipe with 200 ingredients. The school system must add ingredients in precise order and at particular times, and document everything.

No substitutions are acceptable -- penalties follow failures to meet the requirements.

In the past year, the school system had a deadline to meet for each of 206 actions. They have met 93.

The board also argued that the special education lawyers are interfering with the day-to-day business of the school system.

Baltimore schools lawyer Abbey G. Hairston estimated 40 percent of the time of Gayle Amos, special education administrator, is spent in meetings with the students' lawyers or in preparing for those meetings. Amos met with attorneys for the school system and the students 13 times between December and July to talk about trying to change the 77-page plan. Each of those meetings was between three and six hours long said Hairston.

School system dollars that might have gone to pay teachers paid the bills for the attorneys at the table.

Misplaced priority

DePalma argues in court documents that the failure to meet deadlines is proof that the system is not placing enough priority on improving special education. She has asked the court to fine the system $1,000 a day for each deadline missed. She points out that the school system may not like the five-year plan, but the former regime signed it and pledged to accomplish it.

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