Schools to drop appeal

City had been challenging special-education order

April 26, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Pledging a new spirit of cooperation, the Baltimore school system has agreed to drop its challenge of a federal judge's order for state managers to oversee all departments affecting special education.

System officials said the move represents their renewed commitment to work with the Maryland State Department of Education to end a lawsuit filed against both of them 22 years ago by lawyers for children with disabilities.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris said the action was prompted "not because we agree with the order, but because we're putting an emphasis on improving the system."

Morris added: "We've always wanted to work more collaboratively with the state. We've not always had that option, but we're hopeful."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she will be "delighted" if that's true, but for improved cooperation to happen, the system has to start giving special-education students the services that they require in a timely manner.

In the past few years, Baltimore and Maryland officials have fought bitterly over who is to blame for the failures of city schools and who should control them. And that struggle has only intensified recently, as the state school board ordered a takeover last month of 11 failing city schools.

Rallying around city school officials and Mayor Martin O'Malley, the General Assembly quickly passed legislation imposing a one-year moratorium on the takeovers, overriding a veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. two weeks ago.

In the special-education case, the system has been spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees.

In December, the city school board agreed to pay $1 million this school year for representation by the Washington-based law firm of Hogan & Hartson. In the first half of this school year, it paid $250,000 to another attorney, Abbey G. Hairston.

"We are pleased that more resources are not going to go to legal fees and distraction of staff," Grasmick said last night. "We'd rather both the resources and the staff time be devoted to providing the services for the students."

Questions

From the time the system filed its intent to appeal to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in September, there were questions about whether it could win. At the time, U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis ordered the state intervention last summer, system officials signed an agreement acknowledging that they were in contempt.

In December, Garbis implied that he would put system officials in jail if they didn't improve their record.

Garbis' order last summer authorized the state to send nine managers to oversee all city school system departments that affect special education, from finance to instruction to human resources.

The managers are to ensure that children with disabilities receive the services to which they are legally entitled.

The judge's order followed a breakdown in the school system last school year in providing special education students with speech therapy, counseling and other services. The school system is required to make up 90,000 hours of those services.

`Overreaching'

When city officials indicated they intended to appeal the order, they said they were not disputing their problems in serving special education students, but they were challenging the severity of Garbis' action to correct the problems. Morris maintained yesterday that the order was "overreaching"

City officials have also said the order would have a serious financial drain on the system, which must pay the salaries of the state managers. The system is budgeting $1.3 million for the salaries next school year.

The parties in the lawsuit have since attended two sessions with a mediator assigned by the 4th Circuit.

Grasmick said the parties are prohibited from discussing what happened in the sessions.

But last month, state officials announced that the city system has made little progress in providing the 90,000 hours of makeup services, and said the record serving children this year could be even worse.

That prompted bickering over who is at fault for this year's shortcomings.

Grasmick said the state managers do not have the authority to hire and contract with service providers, positions the system often outsources. She said the managers' task is to help Baltimore school officials do a better job of running the system, not to run it for them.

Meanwhile, system officials argued that the court was setting them up for failure by demanding that many of the makeup services be provided during the school day, rather than after school, on the weekends and during the summer.

All sides have attributed the breakdown in services to a shortage of service providers, especially speech therapists.

Last month, Grasmick accused the system of failing to follow up with service providers the state recommended that it hire, an allegation system officials vehemently denied.

In addition, service providers have said that a dispute over recordkeeping prevented the system from getting credit for many services that were provided.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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