Officials at city schools appeal special ed order

U.S. judge had given state control over eight departments in system


News from around the Baltimore region

September 13, 2005|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school system officials appealed yesterday a federal judge's order giving the state control over a significant portion of the system's operations because of its failings in special education.

The system is appealing the order, filed Aug. 12 by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. Garbis authorized the state to send managers to oversee eight school system departments that affect special education, including finance, instruction and human resources.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris said in a written statement that the system is appealing because of concerns about "the serious if not damaging effects that [Garbis'] order will have on our fiscal standing and the overall operations of the System to provide instruction to all of our students."

Garbis had ordered the school system to cover the cost of the state intervention, which was initially estimated at $1.4 million a year. Late last month, the system filed court papers asking Garbis to reconsider that portion of his decision, saying the state was already spending more than it said it would.

The school system is trying to eliminate a crippling $58 million deficit by the end of this school year. Meanwhile, it has agreed that it is responsible for providing hundreds of thousands of hours in makeup services to special education students, at a cost of up to $10 million.

Garbis' order last month came after a breakdown of the school system's ability to provide and document services such as speech therapy and counseling to special education students. System officials say they provided many of those services but did not properly document them.

But on the same day as Garbis' order, the school system acknowledged that it is in contempt for its failures in providing such services, a move that observers say will make its appeal more difficult. All three parties in the 21-year-old lawsuit - filed by lawyers for students with disabilities against the school system and the state in 1984 - signed the contempt agreement detailing the system's failings.

School system spokeswoman Edie House said the system is not disputing the problems it has had, but is questioning the appropriateness of the remedy Garbis ordered.

"We're not saying we didn't have issues, but ... we don't think the state's plan is the most appropriate remedy," House said.

In a news release yesterday, the school system suggested that the court allow it to implement its own plan to bring in national experts to improve special education. In his Aug. 12 order, Garbis had called that plan "unsound," saying it appeared "cobbled together by counsel `on horseback.'"

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who has already sent seven managers to oversee city schools departments and plans to name one more, said in a statement that she is "disappointed" in the school system's decision to appeal Garbis' order.

"That order provides an opportunity to improve the circumstances for Baltimore City children with disabilities," Grasmick's statement says. "We have assembled a strong team and are anxious to pursue this critical path. If this appeal delays this process in any way, it would hurt the very students we are seeking to help with our work."

Lawyers for students with disabilities could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The school system filed a one-sentence "notice of appeal" yesterday with Garbis in U.S. District Court in Baltimore. House said the system will follow up with a more lengthy filing in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.

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