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Baltimore Seeks Plan To End Spec.-Ed. Suit

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Baltimore city and school officials have launched what many observers are calling a last-ditch effort to improve services for the school system's disabled students.

The officials are sifting through a slew of federal court orders issued in recent months and attempting to draft a plan to help end a long-running lawsuit over the district's special-education services.

Meanwhile, at least one of eight administrators disciplined in the case is readying an appeal, an official from a local administrators' group said last week.

U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis last month ordered that disciplinary action be taken against the administrators for not complying with the terms of a 1988 consent decree designed to bring the Baltimore schools in line with state and federal special-education rules.

The same judge last year found Superintendent Walter G. Amprey in contempt of court for failing to comply with the decree. (See Education Week, Nov. 16, 1994.)

Judge Garbis in recent months has stripped Mr. Amprey of his authority over the $147 million special-education system, shifting power instead to a new special-education administrator who answers directly to Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The new management structure, which essentially established a special-education post on an equal level with the superintendent's, is unusual, outside observers say. But, they say, it may signal the beginning of the end of the 11-year-old lawsuit brought on behalf of the city's roughly 17,000 special-education students.

"The school system on its own over the years has not been able to comply," said Felicity T. Lavelle, the court monitor in the class action. "This is a possible chance for success."

The judge also has called for the district to scrap parts of its costly computer system that tracks students' special-education records and to come up with new short- and long-term plans for compliance.

All of these moves have come in the face of threats by the plaintiff, the Baltimore-based Maryland Disability Law Center, to ask that Judge Garbis put the entire special-education system into court receivership.

They also come during a flurry of political activity in the city.

The Democratic mayoral primary, which is tantamount to election in the Democratic strong~~hold, is this week. Mr. Schmoke has faced a tough re~nomination battle and sharp criticism from his opponent, City Council President Mary Pat Clarke, for the state of the city's schools and his refusal to oust Mr. Amprey.

Accountability Key

Baltimore's 113,400-student system is far from alone among urban districts in its struggle to comply with complex special-education rules.

"Special education has always been a special challenge for the cities," said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington.

But critics of the Baltimore special-education system say a lack of accountability has exacerbated the situation.

They cite problems ranging from students' not being evaluated within federal and state time lines to a lack of full implementation of students' individual education plans.

Judge Garbis invoked a need for accountability in ordering Mr. Amprey to punish two principals and six higher-level administrators for not making what the judge deemed adequate efforts to improve special education.

Mr. Amprey, one of three members of a court-created oversight panel, had dissented when the two other panel members voted in May to discipline the eight administrators.

The panel's decisions must be unanimous; with Mr. Amprey's dissent, the matter went before Judge Garbis.

The judge ordered the principals demoted and transferred, one administrator suspended without pay for five days, and another suspended without pay for one day and given a written reprimand. Sanctions for the four others were not made public.

"Dr. Amprey has, consistently, failed to hold anyone accountable for the continued failure of [the Baltimore city public schools] to comply. ... He accepts promises instead of action and excuses instead of results," the judge wrote in an Aug. 16 order.

Nat Harrington, a spokesman for Mr. Amprey, said that the superintendent does not dispute that there are violations within the special-education system but that he feels the eight educators have been singled out unfairly.

"We feel we have moved closer than anyone toward compliance" with the consent decree, Mr. Harrington said of Mr. Amprey's administration.

But the schools have been unable to prove that to the court's satisfaction for the very reason Mr. Amprey was held in contempt last year--because the schools have been unable to fully report on progress toward compliance because of problems in the system's computer tracking system.

'Problems Are Deep'

Leslie Seid Margolis, a lawyer with the disability center, said that the plaintiffs decided against filing a request for a court takeover of special education in the district because they wanted to give the new administrator, a position created by the mayor, a chance.

The person who now has the power to hire, fire, and budget for the Baltimore schools' special-education system is Sister Kathleen Feeley, who reports directly to Mayor Schmoke.

Sister Feeley, a Roman Catholic nun, has no special-education background. Mr. Schmoke picked her for her 21 years of management experience as the president of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland.

While Sister Feeley acknowledged the huge size of her task, she said she intends to change the schools' culture.

"The problems are all over; they are deep," she said.

By Oct. 2, Sister Feeley must give the court a long-range compliance plan. She plans to have the student-tracking system fully in place by next June and has hired more managers and clerical assistants to ease paperwork burdens.

Martha J. Fields, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, said that Sister Feeley's authority is unusual in the field but that the city's circumstances probably warrant such a departure.

And because Baltimore's mayor appoints the members of the school board, who in turn choose the superintendent, Mr. Schmoke already had ultimate responsibility for the schools, Mr. Casserly noted.

"It puts Sister Feeley and Schmoke in center stage ultimately, but clearly the voters held him accountable regardless of the structure," said Clinton R. Coleman, a spokesman for the mayor.

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