It's not as bad as it seems -- it's worse

BETWEEN THE LINES

September 05, 2005

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. made a rare appearance at a state school board meeting last week to criticize the Baltimore school system for its dismal performance in special education. He brought with him a poster to illustrate the crisis in student achievement.

The poster, however, had a few problems. While it claimed that only "4 percent of special needs high schoolers passed biology" and "6 percent of special needs high schoolers passed government," the figures this year were actually lower. In fact, 1.2 percent of city special-education students in high school passed the Maryland standardized test in biology and 4.6 percent passed in government, according to the state's Web site.

The governor's spokesman, Henry Fawell, said he had been looking at figures from 2004. But even there, the numbers were slightly off. Last year's pass rate was 3.3 percent in biology and 6.8 percent in government.

What's more, Ehrlich failed to note - in his poster and in a 10-minute speech - the other Maryland school systems whose special-education students' test scores are nearly as bad or worse than Baltimore's.

The poster points out, correctly, that "99 percent of city high school special needs students cannot perform at proficient geometry levels." But it does not mention the geometry test failure rate of 97 percent in Talbot County, 95 percent in Prince George's County and 100 percent in Somerset County.

- Sara Neufeld

For a few dollars more

Have Mayor Martin O'Malley's Annapolis ambitions made him overly sensitive to perceived competition with the state?

At an event announcing increased funding for a program that places senior citizen volunteers in public schools, O'Malley detailed who was paying what for Experience Corps.

The city: $250,000.

The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation: $1 million.

Then he got to the state's contribution. First, he made sure to refer to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration as "our partners."

"Make sure this makes film at 11," he said to the television news cameramen in attendance.

A state official whispered the amount into O'Malley's right ear, from which began a devious grin that crept clear across to his left ear. He cemented the broad smile and said: "The city is giving $250,000, and our state is giving $260,000."

He paused, turned to the state official, and continued in jest: "If it had been $250,000 and 99 cents, I would have been suspicious of that number."

- Doug Donovan

Courtroom drama has props

Let's chalk it up to too many hours of watching Perry Mason.

How else to explain the flair defense attorney William B. Purpura displayed at the trial of Patrick S. Walsh, who was found guilty on Friday of charges related to organizing one of the largest residential arsons in Maryland history?

In his closing arguments, Purpura asserted Walsh's innocence and attacked many of the witnesses put on by prosecutors over the last three weeks. Among his targets was Aaron Speed, whom he largely blamed for the fires.

But when Purpura came to talking about Speed, who has pleaded guilty to arson but did not testify at Walsh's trial, the defense attorney could not rely on Speed's courtroom appearance - because it never happened.

His solution? The theatrical attorney took out a piece of paper with Speed's name on it and taped the paper to a vacant witness chair.

"That's as close as Aaron Speed got to testifying in this case," Purpura quipped.

- Matthew Dolan

A friend of the courts

Carroll County Commissioner Dean L. Minnich said his three years in office have given him ample opportunity "to butt heads with lawyers." It has made him really cautious, he said.

When staff presented legislative proposals last week, he had some advice on loopholes.

"Don't craft too good a law," he said. "We have to keep lawyers happy so that they can sue somebody now and then."

- Mary Gail Hare

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