Keeping better tabs

City schools: Budget problems persist, but they're being handled more responsibly.

January 11, 2001

TRY TO manage your checkbook without knowing how much money is coming in or out of it. Then, just before your bills come due, a bank statement comes that shows you've grossly overspent.

Talk about panic.

Yet for years, city school officials managed their $800 million enterprise that way. Money came. Money went. And neither the school board nor the CEO would discover what was really going on until it was too late.

It's crucial to keep that past state of affairs in mind as we consider the present city school finance problems.

Yes, the school budget's a bit out of whack again -- a projected $16 million deficit in the 2001 budget year, added to a $19 million gap left over from the 2000 budget.

But officials discovered the shortfall early -- in December, six months before the fiscal year's end -- and they've taken action they believe will stop the projected deficit from becoming an actual budget hole.

It's amazing to think that this is the first time in recent memory that city school officials have been able to produce timely reports showing the gap between what was budgeted and what was spent.

But that's important progress -- and they ought to get credit for it as they request more money from Gov. Parris N. Glendening and the legislature. It shows they're taming an unwieldy budget monster and trying to hold the line despite never having enough cash to do what's needed for city kids.

Without question, city schools have more work to do. They've got to make sure their efforts to eliminate the deficit pay off at the end of the fiscal year. They still need tighter controls, better and more frequent financial reports, and a crackdown on loose spending must continue.

Schools chief Carmen V. Russo echoes that idea when she says this is just the beginning of financial reform in city schools. She told The Sun yesterday that her goal is to make city schools Maryland's most trusted system.

The governor and legislature should take note -- and help out with the money she needs to keep city schools moving forward.

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