State seeks a role in managing city schools

Judge is asked to impose plan to fix special education program

Board chairman calls it unnecessary

July 26, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

The Maryland State Department of Education yesterday asked a federal judge to send state managers into several Baltimore school system departments, intensifying a power struggle over who will run the city's schools.

Under the state's plan, meant to address the problems in Baltimore's beleaguered special education program, the state would send eight administrators "to manage and direct" school system operations including human resources, information technology, guidance and transportation, plus a lead administrator. They would provide "ongoing daily direction, technical assistance and management oversight" for at least three school years under a plan submitted to U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who oversees a 1984 lawsuit over special education.

"We're not saying, `We're tossing everyone out,'" state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said in an interview. "What we're saying is that there has to be some leadership. ... Hopefully, the people who are part of the permanent system could benefit from that leadership, and we could leave at some point with a functional system."

City school officials, meanwhile, argued in court papers and interviews that the plan amounts to a state takeover without that controversial title. They also criticized the state for proposing that the school system pay $1.4 million a year to cover the cost of state overseers, saying it would hamper their efforts to wipe out a crippling deficit.

"We're well on our way to completely eradicate our deficit by the end of [the upcoming school year] as long as we don't get more unfunded mandates," said school board Chairman Brian D. Morris, who called the state's plan an additional, unnecessary, layer of bureaucracy.

Under the state's plan, the lead administrator would be paid $170,000 a year, including benefits. The other eight administrators would be paid $150,000 a year each, including benefits. The remaining money would cover travel, supplies, and salary and benefits for an administrative aide.

Last month, as services to children with disabilities deteriorated in the wake of the school system's financial crisis, Garbis asked the parties in the lawsuit to detail how he might expand the state's authority, as Grasmick suggested he should do.

Two proposals

Last week, the state outlined two proposals. Under the first, and more severe, the judge would order an outside takeover of the system, meaning a court-ordered administrator would assume the authority of the local school board. Under the second, the judge would give the state the power to make changes in the system, working alongside the existing management and with the court resolving disputes.

In court papers filed yesterday, which was the deadline for the parties to respond to each other's proposals, the state asked Garbis to order the second option, saying it would bring changes faster than an outside takeover would and is necessary "to be sure that another school year is not lost."

City school officials argued that the problem with special education is chronic under-funding of the school system, citing a 2004 ruling by Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, who oversees a school finance case. Kaplan ruled that the state is hundreds of millions of dollars short of adequately funding the city schools.

As evidence that the problem is managerial and not financial, Grasmick pointed to more than $4 million in federal money for special education that the school system received last school year but did not spend.

Lawyers for students with disabilities, in their court papers, said control of the special education department, along with transportation, human resources and other departments that affect special education, should be turned over to an outside authority, not the state. They said the state's plan is "devoid of essential elements," including state accountability to the court and strategies for returning control to the school system.

The students' lawyers sued the school system and the state 21 years ago, alleging that students with disabilities were not receiving services to which they were legally entitled. The lawyers say conditions are as bad now as they were when the case was filed. They point to widespread teacher vacancies, huge class sizes and buses that failed to show up last school year.

Garbis' decision could have major implications for Maryland's gubernatorial race. Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat who has said the city schools are turning around, is expected to challenge Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. in the election next year. Last year, Ehrlich and O'Malley sparred over who would bail the city schools out of their financial crisis.

Grasmick offended

Grasmick, rumored to be a possible running mate for Ehrlich, said she is offended by the implication that the state's actions are politically motivated.

The state has argued that it does not have the authority to compel the city schools to adequately serve children. How much authority it does have is another topic of dispute.

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