State officials slam schools over finances

City's education chief tells lawmakers deficit could force 6 facilities to close

Senator sees `a bottomless pit'

Business groups asked by Grasmick to review system's budget practices

January 10, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

As state lawmakers blasted the Baltimore school system's handling of its finances, state education officials announced that two private business groups would examine how the district manages its money.

In addition, city schools chief Carmen V. Russo told legislators that remedies to save money in the future could include the closing of several schools.

The district's problems were discussed during back-to-back hearings in Annapolis where state senators and delegates publicly railed against school officials' handling of the system's $900 million budget. The school system is facing a deficit that could grow to $31 million this year if left unchecked.

Yesterday, state schools Superintendent Nancy L. Grasmick told legislators that the two organizations - the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable - will examine the system's financial crisis that has forced layoffs of more than 200 employees and will require further belt-tightening.

"This kind of shoddy budgeting is disgraceful and inexcusable," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, at an afternoon committee meeting.

"It's a bottomless pit that we keep on throwing money into," said Sen. George W. Della Jr. at an earlier hearing of the city delegation.

Lawmakers said the school system's deficit, and the perception of mismanagement, made the job of lobbying for more money for city schools even more difficult.

"We have fought long and hard to convince our colleagues in the Maryland Senate, in the Maryland House of Delegates ... of the value of investing significant state resources in the public schools," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden. "If the perception is we can't manage what we already have, then we are put in a difficult position."

Grasmick said that is why she and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley are asking the Greater Baltimore Committee, a leading organization of business and civic leaders, and the Presidents' Roundtable, a group of minority business executives, for an external review of the school system's budgeting practices.

"This is a very serious situation and one that cannot be ignored," Grasmick said, adding that she expected the examination to be completed in four to six weeks.

Grasmick said she and city school officials were meeting yesterday afternoon with representatives from both business groups to discuss the review in more detail.

"I think it will be revealing," Grasmick said, after the afternoon hearing with Rawlings' committee. "These are people who have great business expertise."

Upon taking office in 1999, O'Malley invited the same two business groups to evaluate city agencies. Many of the recommendations made by the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable in two reports, including consolidating firehouses and privatizing some city jobs, were implemented by the mayor.

Along with the possibility of closing four to six aging schools, Russo told lawmakers during the hearings meetings that the school district was considering other cost-saving measures, including:

Increasing the average class size in each grade level by at least two students.

Curbing salary- and fringe-benefit increases

Furloughing senior staff members, including herself.

Trimming the summer school program by reducing the number of students eligible to enroll, cutting the program from five weeks to four, paying teachers less or requiring families of students who attend to pay a small fee.

Russo blamed the budget problems on a grossly understaffed finance department, inaccurate projections and unexpected, but necessary, expenditures.

Some lawmakers said they were tired of hearing the school system's excuses.

"When you made your budget, when you made your estimates, you made all the estimates the wrong way," Del. Doyle L. Niemann said. "That's a management problem."

Rawlings was more blunt.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to do this," he said.

After the meetings, Russo said the legislators' questions were appropriate and fair, albeit unpleasant.

"Nobody likes this," she said.

Russo said an overarching reason for most of the budgeting problems has been that school officials have been trying to do too much too fast - in order to improve student achievement.

"Part of it is that we are overzealous and very passionate and we were trying to get things done very quickly," Russo said. "But you do have to be fiscally responsible, so we're just going to have to temper our passion a little."

Sun staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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