Confusion about schools' money crunch Shortfall: Deficit maneuvers highlight need for board to coordinate efforts, work as a team.

March 29, 1998

IF PARENTS, students and teachers are confused by recent reports of deficits facing the city schools, they have plenty of company.

Clarity in budgeting, spending or accounting for these basic procedures has been in short supply, and despite its other strengths, the new school board does not seem to have improved matters.

In fact, the board's tendency to involve itself in micromanaging school system affairs, rather than sticking with policy matters, seems in this case to have contributed to the confusion.

No one disputes that city schools are underfunded, and one could argue that Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke ought to increase the level of city support. But the recent deficit antics reveal other problems.

It is not uncommon for businesses or government agencies to face projected deficits, and, in this case, the system had known for several months that it could not live within this year's budget.

Last fall, the city agreed to cover some of the shortfall, and asked the schools to make adjustments in spending -- which at that point would have needed to be relatively minor.

Then a couple of months ago, a delegation from the board, accompanied by Interim CEO Robert Schiller and a schools finance official, met with the mayor to disclose further deficits. According to Mr. Schmoke, they worked out a way to handle this year's deficit and agreed on a plan for next year. But within weeks, a separate delegation from the board visited the mayor to ask for a new plan.

The mayor wonders, with justification, just who is speaking for the board.

This school board is a talented and capable group. But with almost a full academic year behind it, the board has yet to accomplish its single most important duty -- hiring a capable leader for the school system. The power to make budget deals ought to rest with that leader, not with ad hoc groups of board members.

This kind of uncoordinated leadership is confusing -- and in some cases harmful, as when reports surface that deep cuts are being considered for such successful institutions as City College and the School for the Arts. Fortunately, those suggestions have been put to rest.

No one expected the state's promise of an additional $254 million over five years to solve all the problems of the city's chronically under-funded and overburdened schools. More money is essential, but so is better management -- and it is not unreasonable to expect good management to start with the board.

Despite its good intentions and expertise, the board's evident lack of coordination in this latest flurry of deficit stories does not set a good example for administrators at North Avenue. Nor does it send a reassuring signal to parents or to leaders who may want to consider becoming CEO of Baltimore's schools.

If the board can't get its act together, how can we expect the system to do so?

Pub Date: 3/29/98

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