Schmoke puts heat on schools Mayor at first rejects board's request for money, then gives in

$1 million infusion

Members reportedly told to own up to fiscal woes or resign

March 19, 1998|By Robert Guy Matthews and Liz Bowie | Robert Guy Matthews and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Stephen Henderson and Gerard Shields contributed to this article.

Fed up with being blamed for the fiscal troubles of the city schools, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke privately told union leaders yesterday morning that school board members should take responsibility for the system's finances or resign, according to the union leaders.

The mayor's comments came just before he met with school board members who were asking for a second multimillion dollar cash bailout in a month. The school leaders left with no cash and no promises from the mayor.

But by late afternoon, Schmoke had decided to relent, offering the school system what he said would be his last infusion of cash, an extra $1 million.

"I'm going to find some more money for them, but they're still going to have to tighten their belts," Schmoke told a gathering of high school students. "They started the year knowing how much money they needed . . . they knew they had a problem months ago."

Yesterday's events signal the difficulty local school officials are having balancing the demands for improving the quality of education in Baltimore while they struggle to close a $10 million budget gap. Even with the added funds from the city, school officials must keep paring expenses, an effort that will likely provoke more community protests.

Late last night, Schmoke's spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman, denied that the mayor had asked the board to resign. But the mayor said that perhaps he was misunderstood or his comments were taken out of context. He declined to give further details, saying to do so would endanger union contract talks.

But according to union leaders who attended the meeting, the mayor told the group that the school board had not met its two primary obligations -- to hire a chief executive officer and to operate within its budget.

"He told the group that if this board can't get its act together, they ought to resign," said a union official, who asked not to be identified.

Then later, in an afternoon City Hall meeting with high school students, Shaylin Holley, 17, a Frederick Douglass Sr. High School student, asked the mayor why the city's schools were in financial trouble.

Schmoke told her that he would help the school system by giving them unused money dedicated to city snow removal. Public Works spokesman Kurt Kocher said yesterday that there is about $1 million in the snow removal coffers.

The money comes with strings. Sources close to the mayor said that Schmoke put the board on notice yesterday that it should not expect the city to continue to bail out the school system. Last month, Schmoke gave the schools $3 million to cover part of their budget shortfall.

Several school board members were surprised to hear that the mayor was so upset with their actions.

"We met with the mayor, and he in no way indicated his displeasure with the board," said board member Carl Stokes.

After inheriting an unbalanced budget from the last school administration, the new board has tried to fill the gap by lobbying state legislators and city officials for more money and searching for ways to cut the budget.

But the school board has been criticized by parents for proposing significant cuts that affect students.

"None of us wants to be cutting services to children, and as a business person, I'm certainly not used to going hat in hand to someone else to get money. But this is what we have to do, given the situation," said Edward Brody, a board member.

The school board has tried to justify its need for more money by pointing out that the last school administration, run by former school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and a board solely appointed by Schmoke, had left the system in financial crisis.

A new school board was appointed last year in an attempt to reform a system where students are reading and computing math at a level far below the national average. The state agreed to pump additional money into the system over a period of years. The new board was appointed jointly by the governor and the mayor as part of a settlement of several lawsuits.

When the new board members walked into their jobs in June, they faced a $21 million deficit in the fiscal year 1997 budget that had to be closed in 30 days.

And the budget for fiscal year 1998 -- which ends this June 30 -- has already seen costs exceeding revenues. There were $7 million in special education costs that had not been budgeted. And virtually every week this year, school officials say another un-budgeted expense was discovered. For instance, the board has spent $2.5 million to replace boilers, $1.8 million on an increase in health care premiums and $600,000 on telephone bills from past years.

New money from the state cannot be used to cover those costs, because it is restricted. And the city's per-pupil contribution to the school district has remained flat for some time.

"The fact of the matter is when you have added expenses, you have two choices," said interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller. "You can either get more revenues to cover them, or cut costs elsewhere. There is no other magic way to do it."

Pub Date: 3/19/98

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