Agreement likely in suit on special ed Baltimore schools, opposing attorneys going to court today

Judge must approve pact

Tentative settlement would bring to end 14-year-old dispute

October 09, 1998|By Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson | Liz Bowie and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials reached a tentative agreement yesterday evening in a 14-year-old lawsuit that they believe will soon end day-to-day intrusion in the management of the schools special education lawyers.

School board members said they hoped the agreement also would end the punitive nature of court supervision of the district's special education programs.

In exchange, the school system must prove that it is substantively changing how the system's disabled students are taught.

The tentative agreement was reached after marathon telephone negotiations shortly before the two sides were to go before U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis to argue the case today.

Garbis must approve the agreement.

"We went to court to see who really had control of the system," said school board President J. Tyson Tildon. "What the plaintiffs have done is recognize that we should have control of the system."

Lawyers for special education students, who brought suit against Baltimore public schools in 1984, had asked Garbis in August to rule that the school system had failed to comply with a five-year plan to improve special education in the city and to impose millions of dollars in fines.

In addition, they sought judicial permission to intervene in dozens of management decisions, including the hiring of principals and administrators and contract negotiations with teachers.

The hearing on those motions was scheduled for today.

In a series of articles last month, The Sun detailed how special education programs in Baltimore were failing students.

The lawsuit, the articles said, had distracted the school system with a myriad of superficial requirements that ignored real education and left many disabled children illiterate.

Many of the details of the tentative agreement have to be worked out, said Abbey G. Hairston, a lawyer for the school system.

"I hope it doesn't fall through in the next three weeks. I believe all the parties will be working very hard," she said.

The details of the broad agreement will be presented to Garbis today, but both sides will have to return to court within the next three weeks with specific language for the agreement.

Winifred R. DePalma, an attorney representing the special education students, confirmed the tentative settlement last night but declined comment, saying negotiations were still under way.

As part of the agreement, Hairston said, the special education lawyers had given up their request to intervene in decision-making. The school district agreed to allow the lawyers to discuss management issues with the system's chief executive officer and to take any objections to court.

The special education interests also apparently have agreed to make changes in the five-year plan, which the school system considered far too detailed.

The plan was written when the school system, under Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, had ignored court orders, and special education attorneys believed that unless the plan was exceedingly detailed, the district would not offer children the services they needed.

Hairston said the school system has agreed to make some concessions in the five-year plan, including producing a quarterly report that would document the services being provided.

"I think for the first time, the plaintiffs and defendants are agreeing that children are first," Tildon said.

The proposed agreement, the lawyers said, required both sides to overcome years of bad feelings and rigid stands.

C. William Struever, a school board member, said: "I think everyone agrees that the real goal is to shift the focus of energy toward improving the quality of education in the schools. There's a lot of work to be done, and that's where our people need to be putting their time, energy and money."

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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