Legal Fight Over Spec. Ed. in Baltimore Enters New Phase

In 21-year-old suit, judge OKs plan for state-appointed administrators to intervene.

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In 21-year-old suit, judge OKs plan for state-appointed administrators to intervene

After more than two decades of court battles over problems in the Baltimore city school system’s special education department, the district and the state of Maryland have embarked on a far-reaching intervention effort.

Under a federal judge’s order, Maryland has selected nine administrators from school districts around the state to work directly with the Baltimore district in personnel, information technology, guidance, and transportation, among other departments. The five-year effort, at $1.4 million a year, is to be paid for with federal special education funds.

The move is the latest chapter in a 21-year-old lawsuit against the city school system that says the district does not provide timely services to students with disabilities. State officials are careful to call the work of the team a partnership with the 87,000-student school system, and to note that state-picked administrators are working with Baltimore district staff members, not supplanting them.

“We’re not here to take over their jobs,” said Carol Ann Baglin, the assistant superintendent of special education and early-intervention services for the Maryland Department of Education.

Ms. Baglin said this effort is the first time another party has worked with the district to create the building blocks of a successful special education program in Baltimore. For example, under previous agreements in the lawsuit, the district had to improve graduation rates for students in special education. But there were no specifics on how the district should achieve that goal, she said.

“The only way graduation rates improve is if you get kids to school, and they have good instruction, and a meaningful program,” Ms. Baglin said, explaining why state administrators are working with the city in so many different departments. “We don’t know if it’ll work. But it’s what administrators all agree is how good systems are getting it done.”

Decision Appealed

But Baltimore school officials say that their special education system, while troubled in some areas, has some good programs that have been ignored or overlooked by the state. The outside administrators “have been very pleasantly surprised, and kept on with some things that we’ve had in place,” said Maryanne Ralls, the district’s interim student-support-services officer.

The school district has appealed the order by a U.S. District Court judge in Baltimore to bring in the state administrators, saying that the plan usurps their local authority to manage the district.

“I don’t think any of us would say it feels like a partnership at this point,” said Douglass Austin, the district’s chief of staff. The outside administrators themselves have been working well with district staff members, but Baltimore and the state have an adversarial relationship in this lawsuit, he said. Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, a Democratic candidate for governor, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, have also been sparring over school district oversight. ("Looming Race Fuels Sniping Over Baltimore Schools," Sept. 14, 2005.)

“Were we left alone without that central state oversight, I think we would have that partnership,” Mr. Austin said.

The back and forth between settlement and appeal is painfully familiar to observers of the long-running case. Several agreements have been reached in the past over the lawsuit, which was filed in 1984 by the Baltimore-based Maryland Disability Law Center, a nonprofit group that advocates for people with disabilities in the state. The parties, however, have continued to battle over the settlements and their implementation.

“It’s been sort of a challenge to watch from the sidelines and see the Maryland state department of education and the Baltimore city public schools system tussle over what needs to be done,” said Janice K. Johnson Hunter, the interim director of the Disability Law Center. The center wanted the judge to appoint a receiver for the school system, but understood that the judge wanted to try what he considered a less intrusive approach, she said.

‘Failed Enterprise’

The legal battle began when the plaintiffs said that the school district was not meeting timelines required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for assessing children for special education services and drawing up and implementing individualized education programs for them.

In 2000, the parties agreed on a program that would set 15 “ultimate measurable outcomes” that would improve special education programs in the city.

Ms. Hunter of the Disability Law Center said that process seemed to work well for a few years. But the district continued to have problems providing services such as speech and language therapy. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis stepped in when a district plan to offer compensatory services to thousands of students this past summer reached only about 300 students.

Since his August 12 order, Judge Garbis has reiterated to the Baltimore district that it must pay the outside administrators’ salaries and carry out the changes they recommend. State officials are “taking over a failed enterprise, and they’re there to tell you what to do,” the judge told a school system lawyer in court, as reported in The Sun of Baltimore.

Mr. Austin said the district believes that the court order has been vague, both on the matter of who has ultimate oversight and on just what goals have to be met to have the state intervention end.

Ms. Hunter said that the case has benefited from having a judge who is “really concerned that federal law be followed.”

Still, a child in Baltimore schools now is probably not able to see much of an improvement in services, three months into the working relationship, she said.

“They can’t magically fix all the vacancies. Interruptions in service are still an issue. They can’t magically solve the class-size issue,” Ms. Hunter said.

By the end of January, she said, the parties are required to give the judge a status report.

“I think it’s fair to say then, let’s see if it’s working,” she said.

Vol. 25, Issue 14, Page 16

Published in Print: December 7, 2005, as Legal Fight Over Spec. Ed. in Baltimore Enters New Phase
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