City school to be turned over to private management

March 28, 2001|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Ending two months of tense, closed-door negotiations, the Maryland school board yesterday gave Baltimore the go-ahead to turn over one of its faltering schools to a private company in hopes that new management will improve student achievement that ranks among the worst in the state.

The state board voted 8-3 to approve a city school contract that puts southern Baltimore's Westport Elementary and Middle School under private management beginning this summer.

Several state board members had expressed reservations about the small size and short track record of Victory Schools, the New York-based company chosen by city schools chief Carmen V. Russo to run Westport. But state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick convinced most of them that it would be worthwhile -- after insisting on strict contract provisions to limit financial and other risks of the privatization venture.

The decision marks a difference in the way the state has dealt with schools troubled by low test scores and attendance rates. Last summer, the state turned over three city elementaries to Edison Schools, a large private company based in New York. In intervening at Westport, however, the state board agreed to let Russo assume much of the responsibility for the necessary reforms.

"I really believe schools should belong to communities, and the state Department of Education should not be running schools," Grasmick said. "We don't apologize for what we did last year. I think it was necessary, a wake-up call. But if there's a way for the local school system to be involved, that's a good thing."

The five-year contract will cost about $4.1 million annually.

Yesterday, Grasmick attached several other requirements to make sure the company puts most of the money into instruction and not into its management account.

Westport has agreed to hire unionized city school teachers. However, the company will ask teachers to apply for the jobs. And, when students return to school next fall, they will get a new curriculum and a longer school day.

The changes were not enough to reassure board member Reginald Dunn, who cast one of the dissenting votes. "I'm troubled to experiment with our young people with an entity that has no track record in teaching children in grades four to eight. We should not move ahead if we're not sure. I think we should look at other options," Dunn said.

Board President Philip S. Benzil, who voted with the majority, told Russo: "I wanted to give you the opportunity. I hope I won't regret my personal vote."

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