An overflow crowd gathered Monday night at Cardinal Gibbons… (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
The often-contentious 26-year-old lawsuit that attempted to provide equality for Baltimore's special-education students but ultimately helped to change the course of the public school system is nearing an end after a federal judge agreed Monday to end his oversight.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis accepted an agreement from the school system and the Maryland Disability Law Center, which had filed suit in 1984 on behalf of several special-education students, saying they were not being offered adequate services.
If the city meets the conditions of the agreement, the judge's direct oversight under a consent decree will end in July and the lawsuit will end no later than September 2012.
Under the new agreement, the city must continue to provide special-needs students with services, give them support they need to obtain a regular education, and work to reduce the numbers that are suspended each year. The state will continue to actively monitor the school system's progress until the lawsuit ends.
At a joint news conference Monday, the parties who had battled vociferously for many years said they believe great strides have been made since Chief Executive Officer Andrés Alonso took over the schools in July 2007. The state's role in putting key administrators into the schools beginning in 2005 also helped straighten out some of the failures, they said.
"This is something we should all be extraordinarily proud of," Alonso said. "At the same time there is no such thing as an end. There are areas of the work where we need to continue to improve."
The parties to the lawsuit were not always civil. Garbis, frustrated by inaction over the years, twice threatened to find city school superintendents in contempt of court and send them to jail, and at least twice appeared on the verge of putting the school system into receivership.
On other occasions, he gave large swaths of control of the system to outside administrators who reported to a court-appointed special master. At one point, a Catholic nun was put in charge of much of the system.
The most lasting influence on the school district, however, has been the influence the lawsuit had on the decision by Baltimore's then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to cede some control of the schools to state leaders in return for a significant boost in funding.
The governor now jointly appoints city school board members with the mayor.
Details of the agreement were still not easily negotiated. Lawyers thrashed out the wording over the weekend, and the document was signed inside the courthouse just moments before the news conference began.
On the steps of the federal courthouse in downtown Baltimore about noon was a crowd that included many prominent citizens and leaders who had played a key role in the city schools in the past two decades: Alonso, Gov. Martin O'Malley, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, whose father had been involved, attorneys for the special-education students, school board members, teacher union leaders, education advocates and educators who had worked behind the scenes to resolve the issues.
Notably absent was Vaughn Garris, the boy whose name the lawsuit has carried and who helped propel the case forward.
Now nearly 40 years old, Garris was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in July 2008 after being found guilty of killing his next-door neighbor in Woodlawn. In 1998, he told The Baltimore Sun, "I don't know if the lawsuit helped anyone. ... It didn't help me. Look where I am." He was in prison at that time for a different crime.
But the lawsuit did eventually help students in the system. Leslie Margolis, who represented the students for most of the 26 years, said that since Alonso had arrived nearly three years ago, that the school system had agreed "to work hard, to work well and to work in partnership."
But the animosity between the law center and the school system was at times palpable over the years. "I never quite imagined," Margolis said, "that I would be standing here today."
For more than two decades, the court and plaintiffs were frustrated by the school system's failure to improve services to those students who represented 18 percent of the school population and were achieving at much lower rates than their peers.
"The court found there to be a significant breakdown in everything from evaluating children, providing educational programs, to transportation for these students," Grasmick said.
Over the years, Garbis ordered a series of more and more wide-ranging controls, including detailed reporting, to attempt to make the school system help special-education children. Not all of them were effective, many observers thought at the time.