Schools: The mayor's money pot City-state standoff: Accountability is a financial issue, not just academic.

August 08, 1996

MAYOR KURT L. SCHMOKE did himself no favors by staying away from a legislative hearing in Annapolis Tuesday. Virtually all legislators who sit on four powerful committees made time during the height of vacation season to be briefed on the status of a city-state partnership to improve city schools. But not Mr. Schmoke.

Whatever understanding the mayor may reach with Gov. Parris N. Glendening, these are the legislators who must approve any funding increases for the city. They are frustrated and irritated with recent developments. Voting earlier this year for city school-aid increases that the mayor now appears to be shunning was not an easy thing for lawmakers. But now the mayor's determination to play by his own rules, rather than the ones everybody else has to follow, puts legislators in a bind.

Most of the talk about imposing accountability on city schools is interpreted as a reference to poor results on standardized tests that are an integral part of state school reform efforts.

Yet an equally big accountability issue focuses on the mayor's unwillingness to relinquish unusual power to intervene in school fiscal affairs. No other local jurisdiction allows that. Everywhere except Baltimore City, the executive and council have no education role except to examine and approve the school budget.

In Baltimore City, however, the mayor can take back money already distributed to the schools -- as he did last year in order to fund an election-year increase in teacher salaries the city could not afford. That move cost schools $30 for every student enrolled.

More recently, his power allowed him to get Board of Estimates approval for handsome "bonuses" for paraprofessionals. The likeliest explanation for this reward seems to be the considerable power that paraprofessionals wield in the local teachers' union.

State lawmakers cannot sanction such financial meddling with schools. The proposed partnership agreement would end such finagling, but the mayor's resistance suggests that his unusual education powers provide him with a money pot he wants to retain.

If that's his line in the sand, it will cost him. Until the city is willing to follow the same rules of financial accountability imposed on every other jurisdiction -- and until the mayor agrees to stop using the school budget for his own political purposes -- even Baltimore's best friends in Annapolis will have trouble justifying aid increases that city schools desperately need.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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