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Baltimore's Amprey Backs Off Plan To Increase E.A.I. Role

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Besieged by the city's teachers' union and unable to brandish enough data to convincingly defend his cause, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey of Baltimore last week pulled back from plans to have Education Alternatives Inc. manage more city schools.

In a statement, Mr. Amprey said the district's budget was too tight, and the evaluations of E.A.I.'s efforts too preliminary, to justify asking the for-profit, Minneapolis-based company to implement its instructional program at other Baltimore sites beyond the 12 schools it is now involved with.

"That type of decision would depend on evaluative data not yet available so early in the program,'' Mr. Amprey said.

'Enterprise' Schools

Baltimore is just one of several school districts across the country that are grappling with decisions about school privatization, and, in many of those districts, Education Alternatives is a major contender for contracts.

Opponents of E.A.I. point to the company's recent admission that it had exaggerated, in a news release, the academic progress of children in its Baltimore schools.

Many of the company's supporters, however, say the exaggeration was an honest mistake. Nevertheless, they say they plan to follow developments related to the error and to watch the company more closely.

In Baltimore, Superintendent Amprey said individual schools remained free to seek contracts with Education Alternatives as part of the city's movement toward site-based management in "enterprise'' schools. Three of the 25 pilot enterprise schools have voted to pursue contracts with the company for technological, financial, and facilities-management services and are awaiting the school board's permission to enter negotiations.

Mr. Amprey also said he would seek to replicate the company's instructional model in other schools if it proves successful.

Two days after issuing his statement, Mr. Amprey announced that a preliminary analysis of tests administered at eight elementary schools managed by E.A.I. showed "encouraging'' gains.

The superintendent conceded, however, that although scores on the reading and mathematics tests administered this spring had increased from last fall and one year ago, they remained lower than scores posted before E.A.I. entered the schools, and that the scores said little about the long-term effectiveness of the company's efforts.

Mr. Amprey's announcement that he was backing away from a bigger role for E.A.I. came just days after a closed-door meeting with officials of the Baltimore Teachers Union. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who appoints the superintendent, set up the meeting.

After the meeting, union leaders backed off their call, voiced during a recent protest at City Hall, for Mr. Amprey to resign over his support for privatization and his issuance of a layoff announcement that had worried many teachers.

Portsmouth Postpones

In the Portsmouth, Va., district, meanwhile, Superintendent Richard D. Trumble last week recommended that the school board reject several companies' proposals for the management of four elementary schools and one middle school. Mr. Trumble said the district should instead begin again the process of soliciting proposals, rethinking what it states as its requirements and needs, and put off by a year, until fall 1995, its plans to contract for outside management of the schools.

Of the 22 prospective managers that initially expressed interest in a Portsmouth contract, seven eventually submitted proposals. A selection committee of parents, teachers, and administrators winnowed the list of finalists to four: Education Alternatives; Christopher Whittle's Edison Project, based in Knoxville, Tenn.; and Public Education Services Inc. and Zeiders Enterprises Inc., both of Woodbridge, Va.

After that process, however, the committee rejected the four proposals, citing unanswered questions about finances, curriculum plans, and the specifics of how the prospective contractors planned to fulfill their promises.

J. Thomas Benn 3rd, the chairman of the Portsmouth school board, last week called the decision to start over "a smart thing.'' He said school officials "picked up a lot of good tips'' during the first round of soliciting proposals.

The local affiliate of the National Education Association and several civic groups remain opposed to entrusting Portsmouth schools to private management. But observers said the fact that the school board is appointed by the city council insulates it somewhat from such political pressure.

Election Issue in Michigan

Also last week, the Pinckney, Mich., school district held elections that saw the defeat of two incumbents who, in vying for one of two school board seats, were taken to task by challengers for inviting E.A.I. to submit a proposal to manage the district.

One of the incumbents was only narrowly defeated, however, and Michael Gilbert, the board's president, claimed to retain a four-member majority on the seven-member board that favored continuing talks with E.A.I.

Nearly two-thirds of the voters approved a millage that opponents had called for defeating as a way to keep E.A.I. out of the school system, a district spokesman said.

The district is continuing to hold discussions with the company in the hope of having a contract in place for the coming school year. The N.E.A. and its state and local affiliates have filed a suit alleging that the school board has violated open-meetings laws; a state district court judge last month issued a preliminary injunction saying that the board, its subcommittees, and its members could not meet privately with E.A.I. until the legal dispute was resolved.

The Field in Hartford

In Hartford, Conn., city officials continued last week to hear presentations from companies interested in its unprecedented offer: a five-year, $171-million-a-year contract to manage the school system.

City and school board officials had been talking only to E.A.I., but they opened the bidding to other companies last month on the advice of a city lawyer who said the size of the contract--described as the largest in Hartford history--required that it be bid competitively.

Union leaders and officials from competing companies last week alleged, however, that the school board remains intent on awarding the contract to E.A.I. and has deliberately designed its request for contract proposals in a way that insures that E.A.I. will get the job.

"The playing field is not level,'' asserted Robert H. Crosby, the president of Public Education Services Inc., who contended last week in an interview that "this whole process is just being done to satisfy a city rule so they can turn around and give Education Alternatives the contract.''

Thelma E. Dickerson, the vice president of the Hartford school board, last week maintained that the board was still open to competitors for the contract, which she described not as privatization, but as a "private-public partnership.''

The board has requested that companies submit their proposals to a subcommittee of the city council by July 8.

Nicholas J. Fusco, a city council member, argued last week that the process, begun in March, was moving too quickly. He also questioned how a private company would do any better than the public system in educating children burdened by social problems that are beyond the schools' control.

"A wholesale change in the entire system does not leave any margin for error,'' Mr. Fusco said. "The group that would lose is going to be our students.''

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