For a change, do right thing for children in city schools

July 23, 2004|By Michael Olesker

HER NAME is Sharion Watson, and she sat there as quietly as possible yesterday behind the squadrons of lawyers and school administrators and financial experts inside the Edward A. Garmatz U.S. District Courthouse, all of them hoping to ensure something so unique and remarkable, called an adequate education in the public schools of the city of Baltimore.

Watson, 41, wasn't so sure they could do it, and so she brought reminders of why everybody was there. She brought a 14-year-old daughter, Roxaine Parker, and she brought a 6-month-old grandson, Daniel McDuffie, who couldn't keep his mouth shut for long. This was a good thing. It gave everybody a focus beyond legal briefs, beyond talk of overlooked federal grants and routine cost overruns and famous budget catastrophes.

It said: The public schools have blown it for a couple of generations of children, and here comes the next one, and nobody can afford to have it blown again.

"It's very difficult when you've got special education kids," said Watson. She stood there in the courthouse hallway now, wearing a T-shirt and shorts, and tattoos on her bare arms and legs. She has three children with special needs unmet by the schools. By consensus, thousands of public school kids are like hers.

Watson's 14-year old, Roxaine, has scoliosis and was assured she would get therapy through the schools. This never happened. Watson's 16-year old, bounced between schools, is threatening to quit. Her eldest child, with learning disabilities, in need of counseling, has dropped out.

So yesterday, there was Watson, with her grandson on her lap, and the baby cried out and then cried some more. Good for him. Maybe it annoyed a few people, but too bad, because maybe it was a cry against the future.

For here was the school system being told to account for itself, as the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland seeks a court declaration that the right of the city's children "to an adequate education must not be sacrificed by the effort to resolve the school system's financial crisis."

The famous financial crisis. The crisis that erupted into headlines last winter, involving a $58 million budget deficit. The crisis that cost more than 700 full-time school employees, and more than 200 part-time employees, their jobs. The crisis that sends everybody into the courts now, to ensure there will be no more cutbacks, in money or teachers, to further endanger anyone's education.

Because, for as long as anyone can remember, there is a pattern in the city's schools: They are great at waving the future in front of everyone and hoping we do not remember what preceded it. They are great at pointing to new North Avenue administrators, or new government money, and declaring: Now we can really turn things around. And years go by, and nothing has changed in the classrooms.

Which is why we had state Assistant Attorney General Valerie Cloutier yesterday jumping all over remarks by a school attorney promising great things.

"It's always future tense that's used," said Cloutier. In other words, stop the promises. Show us you've made real changes. "The real issue is a dysfunctional system at its core," said Cloutier. "Eliminate the culture of complacency embedded in the bowels of this system."

"This is a school system," added attorney William H. Murphy, "that brags that it's going 5 mph when it's essentially going in reverse, because what's required are highway speeds."

Murphy, brought into the case at the request of the community group ACORN, went at Rose Piedmont pretty hard yesterday. She is the school's chief financial officer and spent almost the whole day on the witness stand. Understand, Piedmont only got the job last autumn. She arrived after most of the damage was done. She's part of the system's new wave of saviors.

But here was one exchange between Murphy and Piedmont:

Murphy: "Is there a morale problem in the schools?"

Piedmont: "I don't know."

Murphy: "You don't know if there's a morale problem with teachers whose salaries have been frozen?"

Piedmont: "I don't know."

Murphy: "Have you tried to find out?"

Here's another exchange, when Murphy asked why there was federal money available to hire 88 special education people, but the city only bothered to hire 44.

Murphy: "This had an impact on special ed kids, didn't it?"

Piedmont: "No. These were department heads."

Murphy: "But you needed them, didn't you?"

Piedmont: "I suppose so."

She supposes so? To which U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis asked, "So there was a systemwide decision not to hire these [special education] people?"

Yes, said Piedmont.

And Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, sitting with Garbis, quickly asked, "So they didn't hire 44 teachers with money that was there for the taking?"

"Yes," Piedmont said again.

Here's another exchange:

Murphy: "Do you know the high school dropout rate?"

Piedmont: "I don't know."

Murphy: "Can you conceive of ways to spend money to bring dropouts back into the system?"

When school attorneys objected to the question, Kaplan intervened. "It's a valid question," he said, "because I don't want to see these kids winding up in the criminal justice system."

Which is, to everyone's eternal shame, the rest of the public school story.

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