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Deal Gives State New Role in Baltimore Schools, Boosts Aid

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An 11th-hour deal struck last week would give Maryland an unprecedented say in the management of the Baltimore public schools and boost state aid to the financially and academically troubled district by more than $250 million over five years.

After weeks of round-the-clock negotiations, Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening, Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and the state schools chief reached the tentative agreement the day a trial was to start in three longstanding lawsuits over the funding and management of the district.

Under the plan, the governor and the mayor would jointly appoint a new school board from a pool of applicants chosen by the state school board. Currently, the city's mayor--unlike any other municipal leader in Maryland--has the sole authority to select the nine-member local board.

The new board would designate a chief executive officer, who would in turn select academic and financial directors. The new management team would be charged with designing a school-improvement plan for the 110,000-student system; an independent consultant would be dispatched to evaluate the district's progress in 2001.

The current superintendent, Walter G. Amprey, and school board members would be eligible to seek the new positions, which could be filled as early as March, state and city officials said. Mr. Amprey said last week that he has not been informed about his future prospects, but he said he would be interested in remaining in his current job.

Last week's accord would put an end to the three lawsuits.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the state in 1994 on behalf of several Baltimore students, charging that the state does not provide sufficient aid to deliver a "thorough and efficient" education, as the state constitution requires.

A Maryland disability-rights organization sued the city in 1984, claiming that special education students were not receiving services they were entitled to under state and federal laws.

And the city and the state had filed suits against each other over the adequacy of state funding.

City officials, state leaders, the disability-rights group, and the ACLU all said they were enthusiastic about the agreement, but some educators and parents raised questions about whether the proposed funding boost would be adequate to address the school system's financial needs.

More Money, Shared Power

Under the agreement, which the parties are scheduled to make final next week, the state has pledged to provide an additional $254 million to the district over the next five years. The school system would receive $24 million in new construction funding as part of the plan. In addition, the $12 million that the state withheld from the Baltimore schools this year pending management changes would be returned to the district.

Baltimore officials said that the estimated $50 million in additional funding each year would go a long way toward closing the spending gap between Baltimore and its more affluent neighbors. More than $430 million, or two-thirds, of the district's $650 million annual budget comes from the state. But per-pupil spending in Baltimore--about $5,800--is still less than in neighboring districts, which spend about $6,300 per student on average.

If the funding and new management structure are not approved by the legislature, however, the settlement will be quashed and the parties will be forced to return to court or forge a new accord.

The Baltimore plan marks the latest in a series of state interventions in urban school districts in recent years. New Jersey has seized control of three districts since 1989, and a federal judge in Ohio ordered that state to assume control of the faltering Cleveland district last year.

Taking a different tack, the Illinois legislature last year granted Mayor Richard M. Daley broad authority over the Chicago district, including the naming of a new school board and top managers.

What is unique about the Baltimore plan, education observers say, is that the mayor and the governor would collectively choose the city's school board.

In a flurry of announcements, state and city officials hailed the deal as a historic partnership.

"This agreement gives us an opportunity to work together for the benefit of the children of Baltimore," as well as avoid costly lawsuits, Mayor Schmoke said.

Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent, said she hoped that the enterprise would help improve the educational opportunities for Baltimore students. "We are confident that the infusion of additional dollars can translate into better student performance, and that management changes will ensure accountability," she said.

Only 14 percent of Baltimore students earned a satisfactory score on statewide tests last year, and 60 percent of the city's students drop out before they graduate, state officials said.

But Michael R. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools in Washington, said he doubted that the novel shared-power plan would boost school performance.

"Maybe people think that arrangements like these are going to solve [the problems of] urban education, but they're wrong," said Mr. Casserly, who was a potential witness for the city in the scheduled trial.

Legislative Hurdle

Parents' groups also criticized city officials last week for surrendering too much power to the state for what they see as a modest financial gain. The $50 million in proposed extra state funding each year represents less than a 10 percent hike in the annual school budget--too little to stimulate any significant change, they argued.

"State leaders say they are for children and education, but when it comes down to it, they don't put their money where their mouth is," said Ed Freeman, a founder of Friends of Education, a local parents' group.

And Mr. Freeman said there was no guarantee that state lawmakers would approve the extra funds.

That view was bolstered by one of the state's top lawmakers. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the state Senate president, said in an interview last week that it was overly optimistic to expect speedy approval of the additional aid. "We have a tight budget, and people want a leaner government," Mr. Miller said. "I'm not sure there's a collective will to fund this type of settlement."

Both city and state leaders said that they expect the legislature to vote on the plan when it reconvenes in January.

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