Education Beat: Reflecting on 26 years in federal court

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By Mike Bowler

That was quite a love-in on the steps of the downtown federal courthouse Monday as the parties in the 26-year-old city special education lawsuit announced a “special agreement” that ends court oversight and paves the way for complete dismissal in two years.

The governor, the mayor, the school system CEO, the state schools superintendent and numerous other dignitaries smiled broadly and breathed a collective sigh of relief as the case known as Vaughn G. et al. vs. the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore et al. appeared well on the way toward settlement.

“This did not happen overnight,” said state schools chief Nancy S. Grasmick, and that was the understatement of the day.

Seven superintendents and CEOs have served since the lawsuit, charging that the city violated federal laws governing the education of disabled students, was filed in 1984.

Two of them, Walter G. Amprey and Carmen V. Russo, were threatened with contempt charges by a frustrated federal Judge Marvin Garbis, and Garbis actually fined Amprey $150 a day until he produced a special education data base in the 1990s. (Amprey never actually paid the fine, he said yesterday. “The lawyers got involved and let me off the hook.”)

Indeed, numerous lawyers, many with meters running on high, have been involved with Vaughn G. over the years.

Given a penny of every dollar spent on litigation in this case – and on special “masters” and the like -- a person would be fabulously wealthy. Kalman (Buzzy) Hettleman, a former city school board member and authority on special education, estimates that complying with Vaughn “absolutely wasted at least $15 million a year” in public funds.

I have two vivid Vaughn memories. One is of Sister Kathleen Feeley almost in tears as she sat in her North Avenue office and described the utter frustration of trying to get the city school bureaucracy to comply with court orders in the case. Sister Kathleen, former president of the College of Notre Dame, had come out of retirement to oversee the city’s compliance in the case, but a dysfunctional city school system had an even more dysfunctional special ed program. Sister Kathleen couldn’t crack it.

The other is of a hearing called by Garbis in 2004. Grasmick and then-CEO Bonnie Copeland, once friends and colleagues – Copeland worked for Grasmick – were seated one person apart. The threat was that Grasmick’s department would place the city in receivership. The body language of the two women made it clear that their relationship had deteriorated badly.

So what happened to produce the settlement? The answer, in two words, is Andres Alonso. In his nearly three years as CEO, Alonso has made considerable progress in improving the city’s special ed programs. But perhaps most important, he is the first in this line of school chiefs to succeed in taming the herd of cats around the case.

In the words of Leslie Margolis, a lawyer for the Maryland Disability Law Center, representing the student plaintiffs in the case, Alonso got the school system “to work hard, to work well and to work in partnership.”

And what of Vaughn G., the lead student plaintiff in the suit back in 1984? His full name has never been publicly disclosed and wasn’t again on Monday. But reliable sources said Vaughn G., now in his 40s, is in prison.

Mike Bowler retired from the Baltimore Sun in 2004 after 34 years at the newspaper as a reporter and editor, much of it covering education. He wrote more than 900 of his “Education Beat” columns for The Sun.
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