O'Malley attacks decision on schools

Greater state oversight of system's special education unneeded, he says

Federal judge, Ehrlich targeted by mayor

August 16, 2005|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Martin O'Malley, Immediately after imploring Baltimore's newest public school teachers to ignore the political battles raging around their system, Mayor Martin O'Malley launched yesterday the latest attack in the tug-of-war for control of city classrooms.

After a welcoming session at Patterson High School for rookie educators, O'Malley accused a federal judge of inappropriate judicial activism by deciding Friday to give the state more oversight of the city's failed special-education operations. O'Malley also charged Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. with deliberately obstructing progress in Baltimore's education system.

"You cannot run the city school system, or especially the complicated task of special education, from a bench, albeit a federal bench, once every couple of months in status report hearings," O'Malley said.

"[The governor] and his administration seem to be obsessed with getting in the way of public school progress," the mayor continued. "It'd be nice to have a reliable partner in the state, but the absence of one is not an excuse for our not making progress ourselves."

The mayor's heated rhetoric elicited no response from U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who Friday said in an emergency order that the Baltimore City public school system's special education operations have resulted in "massive failure." His order enabled state education officials to begin to implement their five-year, $1.4-million plan to reform special education and other operations.

Ehrlich's office, however, quickly responded to O'Malley's accusations.

"Although no leader likes to see his power usurped, this is about the students of Baltimore, not about the mayor's ego," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman. "Hopefully, the mayor's involvement will increase while working with the state to improve the city school system."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, armed with Garbis' order, arrived in Baltimore shortly after the mayor's comments yesterday to meet with city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland and her senior staff. The 40-minute meeting was the first between the two sides and it detailed how Grasmick intends to install a nine-person intervention team at the city school system's North Avenue headquarters. Grasmick said her first representative will be there by the end of the week. The rest will be in place by the end of next month.

The team will oversee a broad range of departments - including human resources, finance and general instruction - and be paired with state administrators. Managers will report to Grasmick, who will have the authority to resolve disputes until they are brought back to the court. The city is responsible for paying for the plan, leading O'Malley to criticize it yesterday as another nonfunded requirement.

Grasmick denied that characterization. She said that the city school system has had $1.6 million in federal money earmarked for special education that has gone unspent for two years. She said the city school system would not have to divert money already budgeted.

Copeland did not return calls for comment yesterday.

Grasmick and assistant superintendent Carol Ann Baglin said their meeting with Copeland was cordial and cooperative despite uncertainty over whether the city school system will appeal Garbis' ruling.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris said yesterday that the board had discussed legal options such as an appeal during a Sunday night conference call and that discussions were continuing.

"We were absolutely disappointed by the decision," Morris said.

Garbis' ruling carries political implications for O'Malley, who, if he wins the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, would face Ehrlich in the 2006 election. The mayor has made his efforts to improve city schools a chief campaign theme.

Ehrlich countered O'Malley's frequent assertions of a school system on the mend by saying Saturday that the mayor and the Baltimore City Council had their "opportunity to get these kids their services, they failed, and now the state is going to come in and try to fix it."

Ehrlich and Grasmick were also careful not to characterize the situation as a wholesale takeover of the system.

"It's a collaborative effort," said Grasmick, who is rumored to be a possible running mate for Ehrlich in 2006. Grasmick discounted the politicization of an issue that dates back decades.

She said it was wrong "to try to reduce this to a political situation when there is such a long history and acknowledgement of [the city] not following court orders."

Garbis' emergency order was the latest ruling stemming from a 1984 lawsuit filed by advocates for disabled students against the city and the state.

At issue were disruptions in providing services such as speech therapy and counseling to 10,000 disabled students during the past school year. This summer, only several hundred out of thousands of students who were supposed to be compensated for the lapses received services.

Garbis considered proposals submitted by the state Department of Education, the city school system and the attorneys who represent special-education students. He called the state's proposal "the only realistic hope" that the city's special-education students will be educated properly.

Garbis' order cataloged the city schools' continued failed leadership and performance. Allowing the city schools to continue would be enabling management "to persist, for yet another year, in chaotic, unreliable, and wasteful `remedial' exercises at the expense ... of the most at-risk children in the Baltimore City Public Schools," he wrote.

That is why, Grasmick said, she wasted no time in beginning the reform process yesterday.

"We have an order and we are already moving ahead," she said.

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