Schools to repay $4 million

August 23, 1994|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Sun Staff Writer

Baltimore's financially struggling school district had some serious trouble counting students last school year -- and has been forced to repay the state $4.2 million it received based on overstated enrollment figures.

State officials said yesterday that the city admitted it had unintentionally overstated enrollment -- the basis for state funding to local systems -- by about 1,230 pupils.

The errors apparently resulted largely from glitches in a new $6 million computer system that links schools with district headquarters, city and state officials said.

State Department of Education officials, who routinely adjust funding to local districts for enrollment miscalculations, called the city's blunder the worst in recent memory.

"There's always some give-and-take with the jurisdictions that we make each year, but never anything on this scale," said Raymond H. Brown, assistant state superintendent for business services.

"This is by far the largest error, and it's cause for concern when it's off by that much. Obviously, we're going to take a hard look at it."

State auditors plan to scrutinize city enrollment figures, record-keeping and reporting procedures, Mr. Brown said. The audit should be complete by late October, he said.

The city's over-reporting of enrollment comes after two years of slightly underestimating the number of youngsters in the city's 178 schools, now about 113,000.

Yesterday, city officials laid the blame on a new $6 million computer system touted as state-of-the-art technology. The system links all the schools with North Avenue headquarters and, among other things, is used to track attendance and enrollment.

Terry Laster, the school system's management information systems director, said that while all the schools got the computers last school year, it took four months to complete installation and links to headquarters.

As a result, many schools relied on traditional recordkeeping much of the school year.

Also, he said, employee training in how to use the system had been inconsistent, further contributing to enrollment errors.

Mr. Laster said he expects much more accurate enrollment counts this year because staff members have been retrained in using the computers, and installation and links to headquarters are complete.

Enrollment projections reported to the state are based on the number of students who attended at least one day of school by Sept. 30 and one day after Oct. 1.

Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said city districts struggle to keep tabs on students because many of them change addresses more often than their suburban counterparts, contributing to enrollment inaccuracies. He noted that at some schools a third of the students move and change schools in the course of a school year.

"It's very difficult in urban areas because of the transience of the students," Dr. Amprey said.

The adjustment in state funding cuts the city's outlay from the state from about $329 million to $325 million for the budget year that began July 1. The reductions will be spread through the year, in the six payments the state makes to the city.

The loss of $4.2 million is painful for a perennially cash-starved urban school district. That amount would cover the annual cost of about 95 teachers, receiving the average $44,163 salary and benefits.

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