City schools to pay for state help

Judge rules funding for special-education reforms, salaries for 8 managers must be paid

Baltimore & Region

November 10, 2005|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

An angry federal judge told the Baltimore school system yesterday that it must pay the salaries of eight state managers running its special-education program, along with the cost of reforms the managers deem necessary.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, who oversees a 21-year- old special-education lawsuit, criticized the school system as he handed the state another victory in a struggle for control over the city schools.

Speaking sternly, Garbis told Douglas Nazarian, a lawyer for the school system, that state officials are "taking over a failed enterprise, and they're there to tell you what to do." School system Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland was in the courtroom, along with much of her senior staff.

The state and the school system are defendants in a lawsuit filed in 1984 by lawyers for children with disabilities. In August, Garbis ordered an unprecedented state intervention after a breakdown in the school system's providing special-education students with required services such as speech therapy and counseling.

Garbis authorized state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to send managers to oversee eight school system departments that affect special education, from human resources to transportation. In September, the school system filed a notice of its intent to appeal Garbis' ruling, but it has yet to file an appeal brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Grasmick has argued that the school system has been uncooperative with her team of managers since state intervention began. "What's the point of the team if the system isn't doing what it needs to do to serve the kids?" she said in an interview.

The parties in the lawsuit met behind closed doors yesterday and agreed to meet once a month -- more if necessary -- with Amy Totenberg, the court-appointed special master in the case, to resolve disputes.

Then in open court, the school system said the state has not submitted a budget detailing the cost of its intervention, beyond showing that salaries for the eight managers on board and a ninth it plans to hire will cost about $1.4 million.

"It seriously impairs local control to budget for ourselves," Nazarian said.

But Garbis said the state must have the freedom to do what it needs to do to improve services for children, and it is the school system's responsibility to cover the cost.

"You don't have control," he replied to Nazarian. "You're not gonna have control. ... You failed. You violated orders. You're in contempt. ... We are trying to help a school system that is riddled with failure."

Garbis said the school system can notify the court over any state expenses it deems unreasonable. So far, he said, there is no evidence of unnecessary spending by the state: "They're not gonna go build a palace for Nancy Grasmick."

One future expense discussed in court is a new computer system to track information about special-education students. The school system's program will expire in June 2006, and the state is pushing for the system to update the program or get a new one.

"I don't know what that's gonna cost, but how could you debate that you need it?" Garbis said.

School system officials said they were already looking for a new computer program on their own.

Yesterday's hearing came as the state and school system argue over school funding in a separate lawsuit, in which a Baltimore Circuit Court judge has ruled that the state has chronically underfunded the city schools. In this case, the city schools, the American Civil Liberties Union and the city government are suing the state.

Last week, the state submitted papers to Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan that say the school system's auditors have reported a surplus of between $38 million and $83 million. The school system argues that all that money is accounted for, and it is still working to eliminate the remaining 40 percent of a $58 million deficit that was discovered two years ago.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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