A partnership on the rocks

EDUCATION BEAT

Hearings: A renewed focus on the Baltimore schools crisis exposes tensions between state and city officials.

July 25, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

BUMMER of a week for the city school system.

First a three-member panel charged with investigating last winter's financial crisis weighed in with a severely critical report. Although the panel didn't find any criminal wrongdoing, it documented mismanagement so pervasive that crimes might have been committed.

Then Thursday and Friday, at an extraordinary hearing overseen by judges from the federal and state benches, the school system took another licking. Lawyers for the State Department of Education, the American Civil Liberties Union and the community group ACORN grilled top city school officials. Enough blundering and poor planning was revealed to call into question the crucial financial reforms under way in 2004.

For example, city officials testified that they were given federal money recently to hire 88 special-education teachers. They hired 44. At several points in the proceedings, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis (presiding over a 20-year-old special-education case) and Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan (presiding over an 8-year-old school finance case brought by the ACLU of Maryland) could be seen shaking their heads in disbelief.

The city is in an awful bind. After all, it also had sued the state for adequate funding -- that lawsuit was combined with the ACLU suit -- but here it was in the Garmatz federal courthouse Thursday being castigated by a state lawyer, Valerie Cloutier, for running a "dysfunctional system" afflicted by a "culture of complacency."

Yes, we're getting our financial house in order, the city argued, and we're not denying a constitutionally guaranteed "adequate" education to city schoolchildren in the process. In other words, give us more money because we've cut millions of dollars in salaries and other expenses without harming children (and without damaging teacher morale). Some would call that wishful thinking.

The ACLU and ACORN want more money, too. Their argument is simple, and they put an out-of-town expert on the stand Friday -- out-of-town experts always pack more weight -- to pose it: When you increase class size, cut down on summer school (and charge tuition for it) and eliminate school counselors, you're not meeting your constitutional obligation. Moreover, you're negating previous orders from Kaplan that put extra state money into the system.

Then there's the State Department of Education and its awkward position. Last week it acted more like the prosecution than the defendant. The much-ballyhooed 1997 "partnership" that brought national attention to Baltimore is more like a marriage on the rocks.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and city schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland apparently aren't the chums they were last year when Grasmick introduced Copeland (her former employee) as interim superintendent. At times, the two sat one chair apart throughout the two-day hearing last week, each staring glumly ahead.

Copeland and her North Avenue colleagues were not thrilled with the timing of Grasmick's very public announcement that $18 million in Title I funds are in jeopardy, or with the release of the investigating panel's report just two days before the court hearing.

And Grasmick is losing patience. As the pass-through agent for many millions of dollars in federal aid, she is well aware of the poor quality of the city system's grant applications and its lax monitoring of federally supported programs such as special education and Title I.

Just one example that the state superintendent did not publicize: The city had to rewrite three times an application for a federal Reading First grant before Grasmick reluctantly approved it. "They're making me an enabler," she complained.

In short, Copeland's honeymoon is over. The partnership needs marriage counseling. And the folks who brought us this mess are in places like Boca Raton, soaking up the sun.

Correction

In last Sunday's column I said that Maryland and federal regulations prohibit the sale of food and drink of "non-nutritional value" in school cafeterias during breakfast and lunch hours.

The prohibition, of course, applies only to vending machines that dispense carbonated soft drinks. As an Anne Arundel County school food worker and parent informed me, and as every parent knows, junk food of the most fattening kind is widely available in school cafeterias.

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