Ehrlich defends state's oversight role in city's special-education program

August 31, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Armed with posters illustrating dismal achievement among Baltimore's students with disabilities, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. defended the state's new role overseeing special education in the city yesterday at a rare appearance at a state school board meeting.

This month, a federal judge accepted a state proposal to send nine managers to oversee city school system departments that affect special education, the subject of a 21-year-old lawsuit in which the state and the city school system are defendants.

During Ehrlich's 15-minute appearance yesterday, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick announced the names of four of those managers, veteran administrators from Harford, Howard, Prince George's and Baltimore counties. Ehrlich thanked them for their willingness to work in a system that "has failed for two decades and cannot fail for a day longer."

He brought with him two posters, one quoting the Aug. 12 order by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis authorizing state intervention and the other with statistics that he called "objective measures of failure, in some cases complete and utter failure."

Among those figures: 99 percent of city high school students in special education failed a state geometry test, and nine in 10 city eighth-graders in special education "are unable to read at a proficient level."

"This is intolerable, and everybody knows it," the governor said.

He said his administration "will not rest on its laurels until every kid in Maryland receives his or her constitutional right" to an education. "I believe we'll meet the challenge. I know we will."

Asked later to respond to the governor's comments, city school board Chairman Brian Morris said: "I'm not interested in getting into a sound-bite war with the governor. The education of our students is too important to do that."

The political angle

Ehrlich said his comments were prompted by a recent article in a local newspaper -- which a spokesman said later was The Sun. The article quoted political observers and city officials raising the possibility of political motivations behind Grasmick's proposal to intervene in the city schools.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has said the city schools are turning around, is planning to enter the 2006 governor's race and will square off against Ehrlich if he wins the Democratic primary.

"I fail to see how the superintendent [Grasmick] can be politically motivated when the numbers behind me reflect the facts of the situation and a federal judge has now come into the process and ordered us to fix it," Ehrlich said. "To look at this in a political context is, on its face, ridiculous."

Later yesterday, O'Malley spokesman Steve Kearney replied: "When a politician tells you something is not political, you can be pretty sure it is political."

Kearney said state intervention is "adding an additional layer of bureaucracy paid for by the city schools." The school system asked Garbis last week to shift the funding burden to the state, saying the state plan will be far more expensive than initially projected.

O'Malley said yesterday that Garbis' involvement with special education has hindered the ability of city school officials to make the sort of progress they have made elsewhere in the system.

"School board members and administrators alike were afraid to demand of special education the same openness and transparency and high performance they were demanding of other aspects of the system, I think because they perceived the administration of special education to be very close to Judge Garbis and off limits," O'Malley said.

He said Grasmick has been involved in the city's special-education program for many years.

Grasmick has repeatedly said her department did not have the authority to make necessary changes. She said the governor's appearance before the state board -- his second since his election in 2002 -- shows that "he understands the magnitude of work to be done."

"The fact is," Grasmick added, "we've got to make it work for the kids."

4 named to team

Last week, Grasmick named Harry T. Fogle, an assistant superintendent in Carroll County, as the lead administrator on the team to oversee special education. Yesterday, she named four others:

Gail I. Dunlap, principal of Joppatowne Elementary School in Harford County since 2001, will manage the special-education department. Dunlap has also worked as an assistant principal, special-education teacher, alternative education teacher and speech therapist.

JoAnne V. Koehler, coordinator of the Baltimore County school system's Office of State and Federal Programs, will oversee the personnel department. Her positions in Baltimore County have included overseeing central district county schools, directing food services and managing the Office of Student Data.

Glenn J. Johnson, director of pupil transportation in Howard County schools since 1989, will manage the transportation department.

Willie A. Washington Jr., data management specialist for Prince George's County schools, will manage the information technology department.

Grasmick said she expects to name managers for the city's instruction, student services and finance departments later this week. She said the manager of the eighth department, related services, will be named later.

William Reinhard, a state education department spokesman, said the four managers named yesterday have not yet signed contracts finalizing their salaries. Their budgeted salaries are $150,000 each.

Sun staff writer Doug Donovan contributed to this article.

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