Judge decries cuts to schools

Disabled still not served adequately in Baltimore despite decree, he says

Reduced spending at issue

Second time this year courts rule on funding

December 18, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

A federal judge ruled yesterday that inadequate state funding and financial missteps by city school officials are hurting Baltimore's disabled students.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis is the second judge this year to determine that city schools are being choked by spending cuts the school system made last year to reduce a $58 million budget deficit.

Since 2000, Baltimore school officials have been operating under a consent decree, which requires greater attention for special-education students. It resulted from a 20-year-old lawsuit over the rights of disabled youths.

Last summer, Garbis held hearings prompted by the city school board's request to end the court oversight and the $1 million spent each year in legal costs.

Yesterday, Garbis found that Baltimore's public schools still are not adequately serving disabled students and that progress in special education has been threatened by the system's financial crisis.

Like Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, Garbis was critical of the system's major staffing cuts. Garbis also found that although the cuts affect all students, they "most profoundly impact" those with disabilities.

"[In] effect, the students will pay back - in the form of severe educational setbacks - for the past underfunding and fiscal mismanagement" of the school system, Garbis wrote.

The ruling echoes concerns that city schools officials have expressed about the health of special education in the aftermath of the budget crisis. Last summer, the school board backed away from an attempt to have the long-standing case dismissed.

A schools spokeswoman declined to comment yesterday afternoon, saying lawyers for the system had not yet reviewed the ruling. Lawyers for the plaintiffs also said they had not read the ruling.

In August, Kaplan ruled that city schools were underfunded by hundreds of millions of state dollars and ordered an immediate remedy: that the state, city and school system find a way to spend up to $45 million this school year to hire more school staff, reduce class sizes and increase academic services.

The federal and state judges, who are each overseeing a class action lawsuit over the funding and quality of city schools, issued separate rulings after jointly presiding over several hearings this summer.

Garbis presides over a case filed by advocates for disabled students against the city and state. Kaplan oversees an 8-year-old school-funding lawsuit brought by advocates for students and parents, and the city school board against the state.

Kaplan's order, praised by education advocates and community members, has had little impact so far. City school officials have not revised their budget cuts, and the state is appealing the ruling.

In yesterday's 49-page ruling, Garbis said financial problems threaten to derail progress the system has made toward complying with the consent decree.

Disabled students, the federal judge wrote, are especially vulnerable to reductions in staff. Fewer teachers, for example, mean larger classes and less time for instructors to provide disabled students with specialized services to which they are entitled, the judge wrote.

Garbis criticized school officials for "glossing over" management problems and the impact of the budget crisis on disabled students.

Concluding that the system was not in a position to earn a dismissal of the case, Garbis also recommended that the Maryland State Department of Education, another defendant, start more intensely monitoring the city's special-education department.

State officials had not yet read the ruling yesterday, and would not comment.

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