Trustee suggested for city schools

Grasmick bombshell comes at funding hearing

August 05, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick suggested in a federal courtroom yesterday that a trustee should be appointed to run the Baltimore schools, a comment that drew immediate protest from a line of attorneys representing schoolchildren, advocacy groups and City Hall.

Grasmick, who made her comments in a rambling response to a judge's question, later said she was only trying to "be a catalyst for a healthy debate" on who should be in charge of the schools. She declined to comment on whether she would push the issue further by formally asking the court to appoint a trustee.

"I am making a recommendation to the judges. It is one I have labored over," she said. "I think there needs to be a trustee for the system ... a final point of authority."

The suggestion of a trustee came as a bombshell during what had been several days of tedious hearings before Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan and U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis on funding of the city schools.

Grasmick testified that she believes Mayor Martin O'Malley has become too involved in the running of the system since the city offered a $42 million loan to bail the system out of impending insolvency in March. The loan came with strings attached. The system must report weekly to the city on various issues, and the City Council and mayor have begun to ask more questions recently about academic policy issues.

The result, according to Grasmick, is that schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland reports to too many bosses. Copeland also answers to a nine-member school board and to the state. Grasmick praised Copeland's work during the past year when the city schools chief dealt with a financial crisis that threatened to bankrupt the system. But Grasmick characterized Copeland's current position as "an untenable situation."

"To whom does she listen?" Grasmick added.

Grasmick said she had discussed the trustee issue only with the state school board and the state's lawyer in the case.

Lawyers representing city school students, advocacy groups and the city objected to the turn the hearing took and asked the judges not to consider Grasmick's idea before they have a chance to comment.

"I am confident that the mayor and the City Council will strenuously resist any effort to take away local control of the school system," said City Solicitor Ralph Tyler. Also, attorney William H. Murphy Jr. detailed problems he believes would come with a trusteeship. Murphy, an attorney representing community group ACORN, said such an arrangement could mean the elimination of the unions and would diminish the roles of parents and students.

Copeland sat grim-faced and later said she had no indication that Grasmick would make such a suggestion. But Copeland acknowledged that she feels the system is required to file too many reports on its activities to the state and city governments. "I am concerned about the amount of staff time spent responding to inquiries," she said, adding that she would like to simplify the process.

She would not take a stand on Grasmick's suggestion. "I have no idea what a trustee means," she said.

In fact, it wasn't clear what such a structure would mean to the system or how it might solve the problems that were detailed during several days of testimony. The state provided no specifics.

Grasmick appeared to back off slightly later in the day when Kaplan said the state would have to file a petition with the court before he could consider the issue. Grasmick declined to say whether she would file the petition, saying she needed to discuss it with the state school board.

Barbara A. Hoffman, a former state senator who helped craft the partnership between the city and state to run the schools in 1997, did not dismiss the idea.

"She's only articulating what a lot of people are thinking and saying," Hoffman said. "Changes need to be made, and the judges have it in their power to bring the parties to the table and talk about it."

The judges hearing the case yesterday helped broker a deal to resolve three court cases over public school funding in 1996. While a consent decree formed the basis for the city-state partnership legislation, those three cases were never dismissed. That gives Garbis and Kaplan the authority to intervene in the governance of the system.

But school board member Kenneth A. Jones said, "We've made progress academically, continuous progress and better progress than anyone had a right to expect. We're heading in the right direction and don't need this."

During her testimony, Grasmick was both critical and supportive of the system, but in the end she said she thought there were still many serious problems, including numerous management failures. Among missteps the system has made, she said, is the possible loss of $18 million in federal money that was used incorrectly.

Lawyers for city students have argued the system's efforts to improve its financial picture quickly are jeopardizing the quality of education. Also, they say the state has not lived up to its responsibility to provide enough funding for the schools.

Kaplan asked the attorneys to file their final arguments in the case by Aug. 18, including their opinions about having a trustee run the system. He said he would not take action before all sides had been allowed to argue the issue in a hearing.

Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.

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