A federal judge last night ordered an emergency state intervention into Baltimore's program for disabled students, citing a "massive failure to deliver services" by city school officials.
"Precious time and resources have been wasted as the months have rolled by, and the volume of students experiencing interruptions in services has soared," U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis wrote in a memorandum explaining his order. He said that Baltimore's special education students "deserve far more than they have received from those who run their public school system."
The stinging order was the latest chapter in a 21-year-old lawsuit that has educational consequences for the 88,000-student system and political implications for Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) as he gears up for an expected run for governor next year.
Garbis effectively sided with state officials, who had argued in recent weeks that a far more aggressive remedy was needed than those attempted in previous years to ensure that disabled students receive such legally required services as transportation, therapy and counseling.
The state's plan, which had been opposed by city and schools officials, calls for the installation of nine experts on special education who will have broad authority over city school officials in various offices relevant to the system's 15,000 special education students.
"We hope that within three years, we'll see a functional system," State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, whose office crafted the plan, said last night. She called Garbis's action, which came two weeks before the start of a new school year, "very profound."
Officials in the mayor's office have questioned whether the state's actions were politically motivated. The response last night was muted.
"We are reviewing the judge's decision," said O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory. "We are supportive of the school system's efforts to make sure all of our children receive a quality education and of any action they will take in light of today's decision."
Structurally, O'Malley has limited authority over city schools, with no direct control of academic programs but with influence over facilities and financial matters. He and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) share power to appoint the city school board.
O'Malley, however, has touted the progress of city schools as a central achievement in the early stages of a campaign for governor in which he hopes to unseat Ehrlich next year.
Anything that deviates from that script is likely campaign fodder for the mayor's foes, including his expected rival for the Democratic nomination, Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
School officials had argued in recent weeks that improvement could be made by hiring a consulting firm to help city educators.
Garbis dismissed that proposal as "most unsound," writing that "it appears that the 'plan' -- such as it is -- was cobbled together by counsel 'on horseback' a few days before the . . . hearing on the parties' respective proposals.
"In sum, the evidence demonstrates the school district's repeated failure to implement effective remedial measures to address interruptions in services and repeated empty avowals that remedies would be promptly and fully implemented," wrote Garbis, an appointee of President George H.W. Bush.
Technically, educators from the city and state are defendants in the lawsuit. The competing plans stemmed from a request by Garbis to assess the management special education programs and propose additional remedies.
Attorneys for the students with disabilities had argued that the judge should appoint an independent administrator from the District's public schools as an outside authority. Garbis said that idea "has merit" and said there might be a role for that administrator, David Gilmore, to play.