Grasmick tries to shift debate over city schools

Education: The state superintendent's comments at a hearing on finances return the focus to school leadership.

August 06, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick's suggestion that a trustee take charge of the Baltimore school system garnered little support yesterday, and it appears that her idea will get little consideration unless she formally petitions the court to act.

The state's top education official said she raised the issue because she remains deeply troubled about the future of the Baltimore system and wants to ensure that the public does not think its financial and academic problems are being solved.

"I am very concerned that we focus so much on the $58 million [deficit], and I see so many other areas where they are struggling to do things," Grasmick said. "I think you are going to see continued financial problems that are not predictable."

Grasmick's comments during a court hearing on city school finances and funding had the intended effect - to return the focus to the school leadership.

Several school advocates and leaders said the appointment of a trustee is unnecessary because the Baltimore system is making progress. It paid back the bulk of a $42 million loan to the city and ended the 2004 fiscal year with a slight surplus.

"I don't think it is best to have your school system run through a court. ... It is a rather drastic step that does not seem to be warranted," said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

The advocates rallied around Bonnie S. Copeland, the city schools chief who has held the post for only a year.

"I would like to see us focus on the current leadership," said Kevin A. Slayton Sr., president of the Parent and Community Advisory Board. "Let's find a way to make them work harder for the Baltimore public schools."

Slayton wants the city school system to sign a long-term contract with Copeland to ensure stability.

"I think Dr. Copeland, to her credit, is making progress. ... We need all partners at the table fully engaged to help Bonnie Copeland," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

During four days of testimony before U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis and Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, attorneys for the state contended that city schools still suffer from serious management problems and offered several examples from the past year. They grilled Copeland on why she had not been aware of certain issues or had not acted more quickly to resolve them.

The state pointed to $18 million in Title I funds that the city schools had misused over the course of several years and the failure to pay bills on time or to use available federal money.

Appointing a trustee

Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Grasmick appears to have the authority to put a failing school system under a trustee or to replace its leaders. Since Baltimore's public schools fall into that category, she might not have to ask the judge to do it.

But Grasmick said yesterday that she would never take such action unilaterally.

"I wouldn't want to be the person appointing the trustee," Grasmick said. "I think that would appear very self-serving. No way."

Grasmick said she had put much thought into the idea of turning the system over to a trustee and discussed it with the state school board. But she said she would not have mentioned it during her testimony Wednesday if Kaplan hadn't asked her an open-ended question.

She did not discuss the idea with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. until yesterday. The governor's office said that Grasmick and Ehrlich spoke by phone for an hour and that he has not taken a position on whether a trustee is needed.

"He believes this is a mismanagement issue, not a money issue, and he will continue working with all parties involved to try to gain some dramatic improvements in the city school system," said spokesman Henry Fawell.

Grasmick, who hoped to spark public debate with her comments, said others may have creative ideas on how to solve the school oversight issue.

Grasmick said Mayor Martin O'Malley, who bailed out the city schools with a $42 million loan in March, has been too involved in the system's workings. This week, the school system paid back $34 million of that loan after receiving $90 million from the state as part of its normal funding.

She said she would not support any attempt by O'Malley to take control of the schools.

Accountability

Since 1997, the system has been governed by an independent school board appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor.

Facing a $58 million deficit and insolvency last winter, the school system accepted the city's loan and, in return, has been required to be more accountable to the mayor's office.

School administrators must meet at least twice a week with city officials so that City Hall can keep an eye on the system's finances.

Those meetings are necessary, according to Peggy Watson, the city's director of finance.

"We stepped in when they had a serious crisis [and] offered money," she said. "It would be irresponsible for us not to try to make sure that they would be able to make the repayments."

Sun staff writer Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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