State overpaid schools, audit says Baltimore, 2 counties may have received $200 million extra

September 14, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

In a report with potentially troublesome consequences for all Maryland school systems, state auditors have found that Baltimore and two counties may have received as much as $200 million in aid to which they were not entitled.

The Office of Legislative Audits said its sampling of student records showed that Baltimore could not demonstrate that minimum attendance requirements had been met by 10.3 percent of its students.

Since state and local aid to schools is based on attendance, the Baltimore system might have received anywhere from $20.4 million to $58.4 million in overpayments from the city and state during fiscal 1996, the report concluded.

More surprisingly, state auditors found that the highly regarded Montgomery County school system was unable to account for 26 percent of its students and Frederick County could not provide adequate documentation for 24 percent.

That could mean reductions in state and local aid of $77.4 million to $96.8 million in Montgomery and $19.6 million to $35.5 million in Frederick, the auditors concluded.

The other two jurisdictions that were audited, Harford and Worcester counties, received a basically clean bill of health.

The results from Baltimore came as no surprise because auditors reported similar numbers when they made a preliminary report on the city's troubled school system in June.

But the report that Baltimore's problems might extend to other jurisdictions raised serious concerns among legislators.

"If we extended this kind of analysis to the other 19 subdivisions, the potential overpayments could be staggering," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the powerful Appropriations Committee.

Recovery urged

The auditors recommended that the State Department of Education and the General Assembly consider "appropriate action" to recover overpayments from previous years and to reduce payments in future years when enrollments can't be substantiated.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. began to put that recommendation in motion yesterday as he appointed a high-level committee to review the report's implications for state education funding.

"We're not trying to point fingers at anyone," Taylor said in a written statement.

"We're trying to understand how we can prevent this from ever happening again."

But if Taylor wasn't pointing fingers, Montgomery County School Superintendent Paul L. Vance was -- right back at the state's auditors.

In a blistering memo to members of the county school board, Vance charged that the auditors used "woefully inadequate methodology" to produce a report that "blatantly misinforms the General Assembly."

Vance went on to charge that the auditors refused to use previously accepted standards for verifying enrollment, would not accept Montgomery's "paper-free" computerized records and demanded teachers' grade books to prove attendance while refusing to visit the schools to inspect them.

Spokesmen for the Frederick County and Baltimore school systems could not be reached for comment yesterday evening. But after the preliminary Baltimore results were announced in June, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke dismissed the numbers as "absurd."

The audit and the rebuttals are likely to affect the lawsuits brought by the state and city against each other on the issue of school funding.

Rawlings said he expects that the state will point to the audit to bolster its contentions that the city school system is mismanaged.

And the mayor can cite Vance's response to bolster his earlier contention that the audit was "just another pressure tactic to try to get us to settle our lawsuit."

A sampling of students

The state auditors used samplings of 146 students in each of the five jurisdictions to determine whether there was adequate documentation of attendance, immunization and birth records.

Local jurisdictions are required to keep careful records in each category in order to count a student in their total enrollment, Rawlings said.

From their samplings, the auditors estimated that between 33,435 and 66,568 students could not be accounted for in the three jurisdictions they criticized.

The auditors said they followed up their samplings with more detailed examinations of specific records.

Those turned up numerous examples of students being counted twice or being counted even though they never actually attended school. In one case, a Baltimore school counted a student who died in July 1994 as enrolled in September 1994, the auditors said.

The audit also criticized Baltimore and Montgomery and Frederick counties for keeping poor immunization records.

Auditors found that Baltimore could not provide documentation of immunization for 39 percent of its public school students. It put the failure rate in Montgomery at 8.2 percent and in Frederick at 15.1 percent.

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