For city schools, a rocky road to recovery

A graduation scandal, lawsuits and funding complicate reform efforts

August 02, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland insists the beleaguered system is headed in the right direction, but that might be a hard sell considering a recent spate of bad news that has shaken her year-old administration.

Tomorrow, Copeland is expected to take the witness stand in federal court in two longstanding lawsuits over the school system's academic and funding problems.

Already, some of her top lieutenants have been grilled by a battery of lawyers representing students' interests who have tried to expose weaknesses in the system's financial controls and academic plans. Attorneys for the state have also been hard on the school administration as they try to convince the court that no amount of state funding can save a dysfunctional system.

"There has developed a victim's mentality expressed at the highest level of Baltimore public schools: `We can't correct things. We don't have the money,'" Valerie Cloutier, an assistant state attorney general, said in court. "It's time to eliminate the culture of complacency that's embedded in the bowels of this system."

As Copeland braces for what promises to be intense questioning, the system she heads is nursing several recent black eyes.

On July 13, city school officials learned they could lose $18 million in federal grants after a state audit revealed the school system had misused funds for the city's neediest children.

A week later, a state-appointed panel, which examined causes of a $58 million schools budget deficit, criticized the system for years of mismanagement as well as city and state officials for a lack of oversight.

And just last week, the system found itself hustling to address a scandal at Walbrook Uniform Services Academy, where more than 100 recent graduates received diplomas and hundreds of other students were promoted although they failed to meet requirements.

School officials said it is unfair to view these recent problems in isolation.

"We just cleaned house," said board member Samuel Stringfield, who is leaving the board after more than five years. "To tar the current people with the feathers of the former administration is just not the way to treat [them]."

Stringfield said the new administration is unfairly being blamed for problems that began under previous school leaders, including former Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, who was in charge while the deficit ballooned.

Copeland, who took over the system 13 months ago, and other school officials point to major reforms that have been undertaken in the past year, including an effort to curb runaway spending by trimming more than 1,000 jobs through layoffs and attrition.

Her turn on the witness stand will be an opportunity for her to defend her administration and challenge the contention by some that it is failing - as past teams have - to provide an adequate education for the city's children.

"I feel there's not been attention paid to what we've done," said Copeland, who was hired just as the system was in a financial free fall that led to layoffs and community protests. "I feel we continue to be overshadowed by the past."

Copeland said she has been working to reinvigorate the school system and to end a practice of moving sub-par employees to different positions rather than firing them. She noted that she has replaced nearly every top administrator over the past year, from the chief academic officer to the human resources director.

Those new officials say their departments have undergone substantial changes, beginning with a directive in November that every office cut its salary expenses in half. By June - after some teachers had been laid off in response to lower-than-expected school enrollments - the system had reduced its payroll by 1,076 employees, or 8.5 percent.

The cuts were meant to reduce administrative staff rather than take teachers out of classrooms, said Bill Boden, the system's human resources director. "Every effort was made to make [teacher reductions] a last resort," he said.

Boden could not say how many administrative jobs were eliminated at the school system's headquarters on North Avenue because some employees - such as maintenance staff and computer technicians - are based at the central office but not considered administrators.

For Carlton G. Epps, the system's chief operating officer since October, staff cuts have meant that remaining employees have had to absorb new duties.

"This is not ideal," Epps said. "It's not a situation that we could endure for an indefinite period of time."

In the past year, Epps' office has delayed repairs at schools and improvements to the transportation system because of belt-tightening.

Epps said his staff is further stretched attending meetings and producing accountability reports demanded by the city - conditions of a $42 million city loan that rescued the system from financial disaster this year.

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