Deeper schools scrutiny sought

State wants greater oversight over special education in city

Aims to take over duties from courts

December 25, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

STATE OFFICIALS — Citing a judge's recent finding that Baltimore schools are failing to meet court-ordered requirements regarding disabled students, state schools officials are pushing to intensify their oversight of the city's special-education program.

State officials - under pressure from the federal government - already are monitoring more than 800 responsibilities of city special-education administrators, including how well they provide and keep track of services for disabled students.

Although city officials call the monitoring process burdensome, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said this week she plans to take a cue from U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis' ruling and assume oversight duties now handled by the court.

Since 2000, the school system has been operating under a consent decree that grew out of a nearly 20-year-old federal lawsuit over the rights of disabled students known as Vaughn G.

The State Department of Education joined the lawsuit as a defendant in 1997, but the court considers the city school system to have the ultimate responsibility of serving disabled students. About a week ago, Garbis ruled the system was in no shape to be released from the case, a request that school officials had made at the peak of a financial crisis last year that culminated in a $58 million deficit.

Garbis also criticized budget cuts implemented by the system, saying they had the greatest impact on disabled students, and wrote that schools officials were "failing to candidly acknowledge and address [the system's] operational shortcomings and the extremity of conditions experienced by students."

"That was our position all the way," said Donna Wulkan, an attorney for the plaintiffs. "We never thought they were anywhere near in compliance ... We still have an absolutely massive gap [in performance] between the special-education and regular-education students."

The judge also agreed in his ruling to allow the state to begin playing a larger role in monitoring special education in the city schools.

City schools officials said they anticipated Garbis' ruling but defended their progress over the past two decades.

`Enormous strides'

"We've made enormous strides," said schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, adding that test scores were up citywide last year amid the budget-cutting. "I just don't understand what he means about [damage being done] to students."

"I just wish people would dig underneath the data" and not lay blame for problems on the system's management, she said.

For example, Copeland argued, the court frowns upon vacancies in the special-education teaching force without taking into account that there might be a shortage of such teachers.

As for the state's intention to step up its monitoring, city schools officials declined to comment, saying the state had not yet approached them about the idea.

"Until we have that conversation, there's not much we can say about it," said Jeffery N. Grotsky, the schools' chief of staff.

The lack of communication on the monitoring issue echoes rifts that have formed in past months between the city and state on matters involving state funding and the management of the city school system.

A year ago, the city and state had jointly asked that Vaughn G. be dismissed, arguing that the state Department of Education could take over the court's supervisory role.

But in recent months, city officials have complained about the number of reports and audits required by the state.

"We're held to a higher standard than any other system in Maryland," said Grotsky, who was superintendent of Harford County schools in the 1990s.

Grasmick said the added oversight is not meant to be adversarial.

`More receptiveness'

"We would hope that there would be more receptiveness to working with us and to creating a more productive partnership, as opposed to a level of resistance and feeling as though they're victimized," she said.

In his ruling, Garbis anticipated the friction and noted it as a reason for keeping the case going. "The more [the state] takes a rigorous approach to performance of its state monitoring and supervisory duties, the more [the city school system] may view itself as unfairly attacked. ... On the other hand, the less rigorous [the] approach taken by [the state], the less incentive there is for [the system] to improve its performance."

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