Insults fly in school fray

City school officials, state trade blame over special services

March 16, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Reports showing that the Baltimore school system has made woefully inadequate progress providing makeup services to special-education students have set off a new round of bickering between state and city school officials.

On Tuesday, the state reported that the city schools have provided 3,974 of 90,000 hours in court-mandated makeup services owed to 9,000 children. Yesterday, a top city school administrator called state education officials "disingenuous at best" and accused them of "lying." A top state education official said city school administrators "aren't about serving kids."

The bickering carried over to Annapolis, where it sparked an exchange between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and state Comptroller William Donald Schaefer at a Board of Public Works meeting. Ehrlich criticized city school officials, saying "they've failed special-needs kids in Baltimore City for way too many years and at far too high rates."

Schaefer, the former governor and Baltimore mayor, turned to Ehrlich with a quick reply: "Well, when I was governor, I had the same problems. I didn't do anything about it, either."

The state and the city school system are co-defendants in a lawsuit filed on behalf of children with disabilities in 1984, when Schaefer was mayor. The lawsuit lingered through Schaefer's years as governor.

In August, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis authorized state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to send nine state managers to oversee all city school system departments affecting special education, a decision the system is appealing.

Garbis was responding to a large-scale breakdown in providing special-education students with speech therapy, counseling and other services to which they are legally entitled because of their disabilities. In December, he threatened civil and criminal contempt if the school system doesn't improve its record.

There's no dispute that the breakdown occurred, and continues, because the school system does not have enough clinicians on staff or under contract to provide services. The dispute is over why the staff shortage persists.

Douglass Austin, the city schools' chief of staff, said there is a severe national shortage of clinicians, and under a current agreement with the court, the system must try to provide many of the makeup services during the school day. He said the problem could be eased if the system were able to provide more services on weekends and other days children aren't normally in school.

But Grasmick and Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for special education, said Tuesday that the school system has failed to contact all the speech-language pathologists and other clinicians the state recommended to provide makeup services. They also said the system has the flexibility to provide makeup services any time.

Yesterday, Austin disputed their remarks. He said one of the state managers, Martha Lehman, is responsible for contacting potential clinicians. He produced a document that was submitted to the court's special master last week. In it, Lehman outlines the contact she has had with potential clinicians, most of whom told her that they are available to work only a few hours a week.

"Either Martha perjured herself or Nancy and Carol Ann are lying," Austin said. He pointed to language in Garbis' August order, where the judge quotes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in saying the state "is legally charged with the ultimate authority and responsibility" for ensuring that students with disabilities are properly educated.

Baglin said that Lehman makes initial contact with clinicians, but that the school system must follow up to hire them. She said that the state managers do not have the authority to hire clinicians, and that their job is to help the school system do a better job running itself.

To bolster her claim that the system is turning down help, Baglin said she talked to a company yesterday that offered to provide the school system with 15 speech-language pathologists, and was told by a system official that only two were needed this school year.

Jeff Cross, senior vice president of that company, Columbus Educational Services in King of Prussia, Pa., gave a different version of events. He said last night that the company did not begin work with the school system until January, and that it's hard to find clinicians willing to move in the middle of a school year. Though the company committed to providing the system with 15 clinicians, he said the system was willing to accept two for now - and 13 more this summer.

"It's my understanding they would take as many personnel as we could provide," he said.

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