Copeland's contract is renewed through 2008

Vote wasn't included on board's printed agenda

August 17, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Days after a federal judge lashed out at Baltimore schools chief executive Bonnie S. Copeland, the Baltimore school board has voted to renew Copeland's contract.

The school system declined to provide The Sun with a copy of the contract yesterday. School board Chairman Brian Morris said Copeland's "base salary" of $192,000 a year will remain the same.

Morris said the contract will keep Copeland at the helm of the 86,000-student district through June 2008.

Asked whether Copeland had received a bonus, Morris said he did not have a copy of the contract, but school system attorney Anthony J. Trotta could provide one. Reached last night, Trotta said he, too, did not have a copy.

School system spokeswoman Edie House said she could not provide details because she did not have a copy of the contract, either. Copeland was not immediately available to comment yesterday afternoon, and attempts to reach her last night were unsuccessful.

A vote on Copeland's contract was not on the published agenda for Monday night's school board meeting. The vote came three days after U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis issued an order authorizing the state to take control of several school system departments and singling out Copeland for criticism.

Garbis presides over a 21-year-old lawsuit involving the city's special-education program.

`Little confidence'

In his order, Garbis noted a discrepancy between Copeland's testimony in March that she had just learned that hundreds of students had not received required speech and language services, and testimony from other school system officials that they learned of the problem between October and December of last year.

The judge also wrote that Copeland left him with "little confidence" in the school system's fiscal management practices when she testified last week that she'd made a "handshake contract" with a consulting firm to turn around the special-education program.

City school officials presented the plan at a hearing last week as evidence that Garbis did not need to order state intervention. But Garbis wrote that the plan appeared "cobbled together by counsel `on horseback.'"

He continued: "It is hardly appropriate for the ... CEO to agree -- even by handshake -- to retain the firm for a million dollar plus engagement without, at a minimum, having a clear proposal to base its financial commitment."

On Monday night, the school board was voting to ratify a contract with the teachers union when board Vice Chairwoman Jerrelle F. Francois made a motion that the board vote on Copeland's contract as well, several people present at the meeting said. Board members had seen a copy of Copeland's new contract at least a few weeks earlier, but copies were not distributed at the meeting.

Agenda `oversight'

Francois referred questions to Morris, the board chairman. The fact that there was no public notice of the contract vote "was an oversight by the person who put together the agenda," Morris said.

"There wasn't anything to it," he added.

Under Maryland's open-meetings law, school boards are not required to publish an agenda in advance. But the impromptu vote on Copeland's contract left some community members frustrated by the board's lack of communication.

"After all the system has been through with complaints of no communication on major decisions and the recent court decision, you are left to wonder if the board is acting in good faith," said Larry Gaines, a longtime parent activist. "I know parents and community were not informed."

Gaines said a similar situation occurred when the board hired Copeland in 2003 at the height of a fiscal crisis.

"Just as [Monday] night, the decision was made with no input from or communication with any of the stakeholders," he said yesterday.

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