A special mess

April 12, 2002

WE'VE SEEN this all before.

Federal District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, fed up with Baltimore schools' effort to comply with special-education law, threatens to hit the system with crushing fines and jail the CEO.

Sure, the schools chief he's after this time is Carmen Russo, a leader with a strong record, and not the hapless and defiant Walter Amprey. But the circumstances are the same.

City schools, despite Ms. Russo's leadership, simply aren't doing what the law requires with regard to disabled children. And they aren't fully honoring the court-ordered remedies that would keep them in good stead.

When Judge Garbis was dueling with Mr. Amprey over the district's special-education problems (when the first George Bush was still president), the court order was relatively new and the system could at least partially excuse its failures with pleas of unfamiliarity with the requirements.

But what's the story this time?

Last month, Judge Garbis slammed school leaders for allowing a complex computer tracking program for disabled students to fall idle. That computer system is vital to the efforts to determine how well city schools are providing special-education services, and to fill gaps in those services where they exist. Without it, city schools are essentially flying blind on this issue.

Judge Garbis said, properly, that if the system isn't fixed by the beginning of next school year, he'll hold school leaders in contempt.

He's right to be angry (the tracking system has worked only intermittently for the last 10 years), and Ms. Russo now has every incentive to ensure that her charges do the work to comply with the judge's order.

But if there's any optimism to be had here, it's in the fact that Ms. Russo has demonstrated an ability to clean up messes once they surface.

When the school district's budget was out of whack in December 2000, Ms. Russo not only patched the shortfall but also produced a surplus by the end of the fiscal year. She also has handled deftly school crises surrounding rickety buses, computer contracts and school closings.

Ms. Russo will need to apply the same skills to this issue. Get the system fixed. Show the judge that you've done the right thing.

The alternative can't be appealing: continued, expensive legal battles for the school district and an orange jumpsuit for Ms. Russo.

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