The state Board of Education placed 16 Baltimore schools on probation yesterday because of their high numbers of student suspensions and expulsions.
Baltimore City, already beset by financial problems, was the only school system in Maryland to have campuses placed on the "watch list." Under the No Child Left Behind Act, long-term suspensions and expulsions are considered a gauge of violence in schools. Any school that exceeds a federal threshold in two consecutive years is placed on the list; a third year results in a label of "persistently dangerous," officials said.
The Baltimore system will have to allow students to transfer out of the 16 schools -- most of them middle schools -- unless the threat of campus violence is reduced within a year, state officials said.
Speaking outside a state Board of Education meeting yesterday, the city's schools chief, Bonnie S. Copeland, said her staff would closely examine the suspensions and expulsions to determine what steps need to be taken. State officials gave her a Sept. 10 deadline to come up with a plan.
"I would like us to dig deeply into the data," she said.
The 90,000-student school system also is working to solve a financial crisis that required a bailout from the city government and forced school officials to cut 1,000 jobs and eliminate academic programs. Copeland and other Baltimore officials gave state board members a status report yesterday on efforts to eliminate a $58 million deficit that has been carried over for two years.
Though the school system has paid back $34 million of the $42 million city loan, questions remain about how quickly it can -- and should -- eliminate the deficit. State law requires the system to shed the deficit over two years, but a Baltimore Circuit Court judge ruled last week that such a timetable would take away from classroom programs. He ruled that the deficit should be erased over four years.
The judge also determined that the state had failed to adequately fund the school system. City and state officials are considering how to respond to the ruling.
"There are many issues we heard today that still require work and resolution," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.
Among those issues are how to deal with declining enrollment and unused building space. David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program, said the Baltimore school system will have to close schools in the 2005-06 academic year. The system's facilities can accommodate 126,000 students, he said, far more than the current enrollment.
Eight schools have been closed in the past three years, Copeland said. She added that she plans to recommend more closings next month.
"School closings are not new to us," she said. "They're not fun, but they're not new."
There are short-term problems as well. With the city's schools scheduled to open Sept. 7, officials are scrambling to fill teaching vacancies. So far, the school system has hired about 300 new teachers but has 175 vacancies to fill -- about 45 of them in special education, said William D. Boden, the system's human resources officer.
Nonetheless, Copeland said her staff is ready for classes to resume. "We are very much on track," she said.
Baltimore's schools weren't the only ones examined by state board members yesterday. Prince George's County school officials also delivered a report on how they have dealt with their financial and academic problems. Through cost reductions, school officials wiped out a $46.6 million deficit in the operating budget and other accounts from which they pay for health insurance and workers' compensation.
State board members also approved a plan to restructure three Prince George's schools that have failed to meet benchmarks on state standardized tests for several years. Prince George's schools chief André J. Hornsby said each of the three schools -- Bladensburg Elementary, Charles Carroll Middle School in New Carrollton and Stephen Decatur Middle School in Clinton -- will have a special administrator assigned to it to help the principal make academic reforms.