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City schools unveil a plan to repair special education
In a tense and at times heated federal court hearing, city school officials unveiled yesterday a plan to hire two outside consultants to turn around its beleaguered special-education program while state officials maintained they need to take control of much of the system's operations.
U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis presided over the all-day hearing - to be continued tomorrow - to determine which of three proposals to put into place to prevent what he deemed "a crisis" - the continuing failure to provide services to the city's special-education students.
The city and state are defendants in a 1984 lawsuit filed by the Maryland Disability Law Center on behalf of the city's students with disabilities. But the latest round of struggles has evolved into a politically tinged power struggle between the two defendants as city and state officials tussle over control of the city school system.
At yesterday's hearing, lawyers for the two defendants grilled each other's respective witnesses, with city officials continuing to paint the state's proposal as a veiled takeover attempt.
Testifying that the continuing failure to provide services for special education was "appalling" and "unconscionable," Baltimore schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland took full responsibility for the breakdown, saying she was angry at herself for "not asking the right questions."
"There is absolutely no excuse for this, and we cannot tolerate this going forward," Copeland said.
But Copeland and city officials continued to resist a plan crafted by the state that would send nine state-appointed managers into the city school system to oversee operations related to special education, pointing to measures they have taken - such as the creation of a Board of Education special-education committee - and their plan to hire two consultants.
State officials, meanwhile, argued that the city school system has been given countless chances to provide special-education students with the services it is legally bound to provide but has repeatedly failed to provide.
Elizabeth Kameen, an assistant attorney general arguing the state's case, pointed to data that showed that special-education students who were owed services and were supposed to be compensated this summer were again deprived of services such as speech and physical therapy.
Kameen pointed out that 10 years ago the court said it was giving the city schools one last chance. "The past is a prologue to the future," Kameen said.
City officials posed a new plan that would involve hiring the international consulting firm of Alvarez & Marsal, and Sue Gamm, an out-of-state special-education consultant, to help them devise a systemic solution.
The plan surprised state officials, the plaintiffs and the judge because it was not detailed in court filings.
Upon questioning, Copeland said the consultants did not have contracts and had been contacted just last week. Gamm and William Roberti, a managing director of Alvarez & Marsal, testified in court yesterday.
When asked about the cost, Copeland said Alvarez & Marsal, which proposes bringing in five people, would cost less than the state's plan, which is estimated at $1.4 million.
"The handshake is you'll charge us less than the state?" Garbis asked.
"That's right," said Copeland, later clarifying that it will be between $1 million and $1.3 million.
"You're talking about fiscal management," Garbis said.
"Here is a wild-eye contract of some kind that has no meaning."
The firm - described as an interim management and turn-around consulting firm - deals largely with finances, and its clients are mostly commercial businesses. But it took over the St. Louis public school system in 2003 for a year and is working with New Orleans' schools.
Alberti said he envisioned bringing five consultants in for about a seven- to 10-month period. He said they could devise a plan about a month after consultants examined the school system.
"We're not typical consultants," Roberti said. "We actually execute what we say we're going to do."
Gamm, considered a special-education expert, previously worked in the Chicago public school system, and has done consulting work for Baltimore schools. She said she did not know exactly what the extent of her time involvement would be and that she would be paid $150 an hour.
State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said the state's plan would entail hiring eight administrators from other school districts to work in city school headquarters, as well as a lead administrator to oversee them.