School reform claim reduced

City system says extra $1.1 million needed, not up to $40 million

July 22, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore school system is scaling back a claim that it needs up to $40 million beyond the money in its budget to implement state-ordered reforms, in a move highlighting newfound cooperation between the system and the state.

Under the leadership of new interim Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston, the system says the reforms will cost $1.1 million beyond the $1.1 billion budget for the coming school year.

The reforms, called corrective actions, include implementing new curricula in key subjects in middle and high schools, and leadership training for principals.

Boston, who took over for CEO Bonnie S. Copeland on July 1, is known for her good working relationship with state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

She said yesterday that her management philosophy is one of "collaboration and cooperation." Grasmick and Copeland were once close friends, but their relationship eroded during Copeland's tenure as CEO.

Grasmick said in an interview yesterday that Boston, a former superintendent in Wicomico County, is embracing the reforms as an opportunity to improve the city schools rather than fighting the state.

"I think we've found an extremely willing partner who understands that these corrective actions are so fundamental to a well-functioning school system, and they were deficiencies that had to be addressed," Grasmick said.

In March, using its authority under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state school board ordered outside takeovers of 11 city schools with chronically low test scores, plus several reforms aimed at improving the city schools overall. In April, the General Assembly voted to impose a one-year moratorium on the takeovers, but the system must comply now with the other reforms.

In May, the parties in a long-running lawsuit on school funding appeared before Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan to discuss the cost of the reforms. At the time, a lawyer for the system estimated that it would cost $30 million to $40 million to comply with the state requirements. State officials said the system should be able to cover the cost of the reforms with the money in its budget.

Kaplan ordered the system and the state to provide precise figures on the cost of the reforms and report back to him within 60 days. The lawsuit, accusing the state of unlawfully underfunding city schools, was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of parents and was joined by the city.

In court yesterday, the state's lawyer, Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth Kameen, said Boston and Grasmick had met to hash out amendments to the reforms, and this week, the state school board accepted the system's plans to implement them.

Last month, before Copeland's departure, Grasmick determined that the system's implementation plans for several reforms were unacceptable or partly acceptable.

Now, the system is saying it can cover all but $1.1 million of the reforms with the money in its budget.

Mark L. Whitaker, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the case, said he wants to know what programs the system had to cut to find the money. Agreeing with that concern, Kaplan gave the system two weeks to submit a chart listing each reform, how much it will cost and where the money will come from.

Teenagers representing the Algebra Project, a student-run tutoring and advocacy group, appeared in court, accusing the system of backing down from its commitment to fight for adequate school funding.

In an interview yesterday afternoon, Boston said she worked with the state to find ways the system could adopt the reforms without spending as much as was previously estimated.

For example, one of the reforms requires that the system adopt new curricula that have been successful in other Maryland schools. In high school biology, Carroll County is giving the city materials such as assessments and sample lessons, things that Boston said will improve instruction without the city's having to immediately find the money for new biology textbooks.

Boston said the reforms, which also include forming individual plans for students at risk of not graduating, are necessary to improve the city schools.

"It's a plan that we should be implementing," she said. "When you don't have a curriculum that's netting you the results you want, it's a great best practice to get it from somebody else who has."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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