Calling Baltimore's special-education program "a failure of extraordinary magnitude," state education officials called yesterday for an outside takeover of the school district or a major overhaul of its management.
The state filed court papers saying the problems with special education are so widespread that someone with authority from the court must take control of the district's "transportation, human resources, finance, information technology and general education."
It said the school district's leadership is "incapable of delivering the very basics of a free appropriate public education to more than 15,000 special needs children in Baltimore."
The city vehemently defended its right to local control in papers filed yesterday with U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis. Garbis oversees a 21-year-old class action lawsuit, in which lawyers for disabled students alleged that the city schools failed to give them appropriate services and to accurately diagnose disabilities.
The filings are fraught with political implications. The state superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, is rumored to be a possible candidate for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. next year.
Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who is expected to make a gubernatorial bid, has maintained that the city schools are undergoing a renaissance and that the state is picking on them unnecessarily. Last year, Ehrlich and O'Malley sparred over who would bail the city schools out of a deep financial crisis.
But Grasmick said last night that politics have nothing to do with the state's request.
"I'm not partisan in this job," she said. "The record speaks for itself."
The state is also a defendant in the lawsuit but argues that it does not have the authority to compel the city schools to improve.
Among the statistics included in the state's filing: Nearly 99 percent of Baltimore's 10th-graders with disabilities failed the state reading test this year. The school district has failed to increase the high school graduation rate for students with disabilities from 32 percent to 41.6 percent, as it agreed to do in a 2000 consent decree.
Lawyers representing children with disabilities say the financial crisis is partly to blame for a major breakdown in services that occurred last school year, reversing a few years of progress. They say special-education students were hurt by widespread teacher vacancies, class sizes as large as 50 students, buses that failed to show up, and layoffs at the central office that prevented the district from providing schools with adequate support and technical assistance.
"We are literally right back at the same point we were at the beginning," said Janice Johnson Hunter of the Maryland Disability Law Center, which filed the suit in 1984 and was also expected to file a brief with Garbis last night. "This case keeps going full circle. ... Every day we're losing students."
Grasmick suggested in court recently that the state take a "much more aggressive role," and Garbis gave the parties in the case until yesterday to detail what that role might be.
The state proposed two options. Under the first, and more severe, Garbis would appoint a "receiver" to oversee the school district. Receiverships are used around the country as a measure of last resort, often when a school district is financially bankrupt, and they generally require local school boards to dissolve or serve only in an advisory capacity.
Because the State Department of Education supervises and allocates money to the city schools, Garbis would need to appoint a receiver who does not work for the state, Grasmick said.
Under the second option, Garbis would give the state authority to intervene in most school district operations, but state officials would work alongside current school district leadership, and the court would resolve disputes.
Hunter said she agrees with the state that drastic changes are needed to fix Baltimore's special-education program. But she said the state must prove that it is worthy of taking control.
The city argues in its brief that the state already has broad authority over its special-education program and that there is no basis on which to expand its role. It says the state can better help the city schools by eliminating redundancies in auditing and monitoring, and improving the training and technical assistance it provides. It charges that the state has failed to provide timely and adequate technical assistance.
The city also outlines the steps it is taking to improve its track record, from hiring more buses to transport disabled students to school to restructuring the staff hierarchy.
City schools officials had no immediate comment on the filings last night.