City may owe Md. millions from aid Tentative findings indicate school funds were overpaid

June 15, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Maryland paid Baltimore millions too much in school aid this year, dollars that the city could be asked to return, according to preliminary results of a state audit.

The city may owe the state between $10 million and $31 million, according to tentative findings by the Office of Legislative Audits, reported to state officials.

Calling the early results of the study "absurd," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke attacked the audit yesterday as a tool of state officials who are fighting the city's demand for more school aid.

"The bottom line is that I view this as just another pressure tactic to try to get us to settle our lawsuit," he said.

The city sued the state last September, charging that its school system is underfunded and that Maryland has not met its obligation to provide an adequate education for the children. The state countersued in October, alleging the city poorly manages its schools.

In their tentative findings, the state auditors have estimated that Baltimore's reported enrollment of 113,428 for the 1994-1995 school year was higher than its actual student population.

The state used the reported enrollment to determine the school system's share of aid for this year.

The auditors based their early results on an examination of records for 146 students, listed as enrolled in Baltimore in 1994-1995. They "could not substantiate" that 10.3 percent of the students were enrolled, said a June 6 Department of Fiscal Services letter sent to Baltimore Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Using statistical formulas to expand that finding to the entire school population, the auditors concluded that "between 6,228 and 17,863 Baltimore City students did not meet the minimum enrollment requirements." Thus, they estimated, the state overpaid Baltimore this year by $10.8 million to $31 million.

"No one will seriously consider these conclusions until an independent auditor reviews this data," Schmoke said. "We were aware that these folks were going to reach this conclusion, and we knew this because it is another state entity trying to support the state's case in response to our lawsuit."

Five Maryland districts are being audited by the state agency, which will report its conclusions to legislators and the state Department of Education. The auditors have declined to comment while their work is incomplete. Sources said the other districts under review are Harford, Montgomery, Frederick and Worcester counties.

It is too soon to determine the outcome for Baltimore or any of the school districts, said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. She plans to review the study when it is finished, and order further study to determine whether the findings are based on missing or inaccurate school records, or a school system count of students who were not there. Then she will recommend whether to bill the districts.

Enrollment counts begin at the schools. Accuracy can depend on whether clerks and administrators correctly log the numbers in computers, whether record-keeping systems are well organized and whether the systems can keep up with frequent student transfers in districts with transient populations.

Accuracy also is affected by a variety of variables. To be officially enrolled, for example, students must have received immunizations. A citywide health campaign this year established that thousands of Baltimore students did not have up-to-date shots in the past; however, most of those students probably were sitting in their desks and counted as present.

"I believe the auditors have done a thorough and excellent job, but I want to do what is fair," Grasmick said. "I want to be sure we are looking at the most egregious situations: You cannot justify counting children who are not there. You can understand problems with pupil records management."

The possibility of a significant enrollment overcount, Rawlings said this week, "validates the concern that the budget committees have had about the management practices in the school system."

"I'm not willing to make any judgment at this time, until the city and the Maryland state department reach an agreement," he added.

Legislators and Gov. Parris N. Glendening recently put pressure on the city to settle the school funding lawsuits by agreeing to a restructuring of school government that would increase the state's oversight.

In a blunt eight-page letter to Glendening yesterday, Schmoke said, "I will not hand over control of our children's future to those who rationalize the State's refusal to provide adequate resources and try to affix blame somewhere other than where it belongs."

Pub Date: 6/15/96

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