Judge assails school leaders

City still has problems tracking special ed

Contempt ruling is considered

Deadline passed to iron out computerized system

October 05, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

A federal judge denounced the leaders of the Baltimore public school system yesterday for failing to comply with a court order demanding that the district's special education computer system be in good working order, and strongly suggested that Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo and Chief Technology Officer Joseph J. Kirkman could be held in civil contempt.

"Why are you telling me now that the kids are going to have to wait another year to have this vital resource working?" U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis argued at the close of a 4 1/2 -hour status hearing that centered around the operation of the school system's Special Education Tracking System (SETS).

"It's not acceptable, sir," Garbis said to Kirkman. "It's not acceptable. That's not the way it's going to be."

SETS is used to track information on the thousands of city children receiving special education services. As a result of a lawsuit filed 18 years ago, the school district is legally required to ensure that the system is functioning properly.

A March report by court-appointed special master Amy Totenberg criticized the district for a botched attempt to upgrade SETS that left the system largely inoperable much of last year. SETS was developed and is maintained by 4GL School Solutions, Inc., a Towson-based firm, whose founder and CEO, Clark Easter, has been working with the district to ensure that the computer system is operating properly.

Garbis had ordered school leaders to make the computer system fully operational by two weeks before the start of the school year. School opened Sept. 3. If they did not do so, they faced the possibility of being jailed.

Yesterday, Russo, Kirkman and others told Garbis that they needed more time to fix certain problem areas.

"We predicted we could get it done by Oct. 4," said Abbey Hairston, an attorney for the school system, "and we were wrong."

An angry Garbis ended the hearing a half-hour early, saying he planned to study what, if any, sanctions he could impose.

"I'm not going to hear you shift my orders into what you find acceptable," Garbis said. "I am going to study what the situation is, and if there's going to be a contempt [finding], there's going to be a contempt."

Kirkman and other members of the school's technology departments testified yesterday that aspects of the SETS system still need improvement - in particular the response time and product-knowledge of field technicians and a many-layered help desk.

The technicians who work in the field and on the help desk are school district employees.

Despite those problems, school officials testified that overall, the tracking program should be considered operational.

"Every single day, hundreds of people are using this software to get their work done. There are problems. But most of it is being done successfully and efficiently," Kirkman said.

Russo left the hearing early and could not be reached for comment.

Kirkman testified that it might take "several months, possibly through the rest of this school year, to be in a position where we'd have that consistent high level of performance."

Garbis replied, "You told me you would do that by today. You said you'd do it. ... Do you bloody care? Do you care, sir? Do you care about meeting the orders of this court, or is it something you can just blow away?"

After the hearing, Kirkman said he was frustrated because it was school leaders, not Garbis, who included technical support and user-satisfaction as criteria for determining whether the district was in full compliance with the judge's order.

"I don't get it," Kirkman said. "If we should be criticized for anything, it should be for setting our standards too high."

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