Despite gains, city schools still on defensive

Performance: Officials respond to criticisms leveled in federal court hearings.

August 17, 2004|By Laura Loh and Liz Bowie | Laura Loh and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

At a time when Baltimore school officials should be looking forward to the start of school this fall and building on recent academic gains, they find themselves fending off criticism of past mistakes.

During a series of contentious federal court hearings, the school administration came under withering attack by lawyers for the state. The hearings culminated with state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick suggesting on the witness stand that a trustee should run the schools.

Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, on the defensive during much of her testimony, said the hearings painted a distorted picture of the current condition of the city's schools. Others involved in the hearings criticized the state for using any misstep by school administrators as an excuse to evade its responsibility for the academic and financial well-being of the schools.

"I just wish for the sake of the school system we had gotten a fair shake" in court, Copeland said in an interview last week.

By month's end, the judges at the hearing - U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis and Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan - are expected to rule on whether the system's plan to recover from the deficit is harming its academic program, and whether the state should continue to increase funding to city schools.

Copeland, who has been on the job since July of last year, said that the system has met three goals she set during her first year as chief executive officer: increasing test scores, balancing the budget and paying back a loan that the city made to the schools when the system faced a nearly crippling cash shortage last spring.

Maryland School Assessment scores in city schools not only are on the rise, but surpassed statewide average increases last school year in every grade and subject, except for fifth-grade math, she said.

The system ended the fiscal year June 30 with a small surplus for the first time in years. That was no small feat, Copeland said, considering the system was on a disastrous track to spend $30 million more than it had in revenue and had to make the difficult decision to cut 1,000 jobs to meet its goal.

This month, the system paid back $34 million of the $42 million city loan on time, and Copeland said she does not expect a cash-flow problem to emerge again this school year.

A lesson

The court hearings, over three longstanding lawsuits regarding Baltimore schools, have been a lesson in politics and school management.

They revealed how far things have strayed from 1997, when the state legislature created a partnership of the city and state that was hailed - at the time - as the answer to the system's academic and financial woes.

The state contends that the system has been poorly managed and cannot be helped by more state funding, which education advocates are seeking.

The city is siding with the school system, in an effort to maintain the influence it gained in school management since lending the ailing system $42 million last winter.

On the witness stand and in subsequent interviews, Copeland and her staff provided defenses and explanations for a laundry list of alleged failures brought up by the state's lawyers, ranging from the misuse of millions of dollars in federal grants to a late payment of $29,000 in boiler installation fees.

At the top of the state's list is $18 million in federal Title I funds for the system's neediest schools. A state audit recently revealed that grant money had been misused since 2001, and Grasmick has clamped down on future disbursements.

Copeland argued that the state had signed off on how the system planned to spend some of that money. Now, the state appears to have changed its mind, she said.

State, federal grants

The state also criticized the system for not taking advantage of more than $13 million in state and federal grants. The system did not apply for the grants or submitted applications that were rejected. It also occasionally failed to make use of grants it has received and was required to return the money.

City school officials said they purposely did not seek some grants because of the high administrative costs associated with them or because the money came with strings attached.

"If a grant is not going to help us implement our master plan, then it's a waste of our time," Copeland told the school board at a recent meeting.

Federal audit

The state also brought up a federal audit that found fault with $12 million that the system billed to Medicaid for school-based medical services for disabled students. Baltimore was asked to repay the funds as a result of the 2002 audit, which also found problems in several others states.

But city school officials dispute the audit's findings, and said they believe the federal government will ultimately forgive most of the money it says it is owed.

"We do not believe for one second we will pay back $12 million," said Ben Feldman, who oversees the Medicaid billing program. "If there are penalties, we believe they will be very minor."

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