Hit the books

January 14, 2003

MORE THAN credibility is at stake in the Baltimore City school system's struggle to manage its finances. At stake is the system's ability to keep delivering on the promise of its hard-won and much-heralded academic progress of recent years. Let the auditors from the Greater Baltimore Committee, the architects of the city-state partnership overseeing city schools, and the politicians in Annapolis remember: A child waits in the classroom at the receiving end of the services provided by each precious dollar.

Frankly, it's a disappointment that in the five years since the launch of sweeping reform of the school system, too little attention has been paid to the financial infrastructure supporting the mandated academic overhaul. Back then, critics and politicians called city schools a money pit, so the city-state partnership was designed to give the system what county schools have: autonomy from municipal government.

Today, Carmen Russo, Nancy Grasmick and the city school board are entitled to claim rising test scores as proof that investments in Baltimore schools achieve results. But their day of reckoning is coming, if it hasn't already arrived: The projected $31 million deficit has many mothers, including a multimillion-dollar investment in a human resources and payroll management system adopted for the split from city hall; the large-scale end of social promotion and a decision to address it with free summer school available at multiple sites for some 20,000 children; and larger-than-anticipated expenses related to health benefits and facilities maintenance.

That's just today's headache. Over the long haul, Baltimore school officials cannot sustain the initiatives that have been making a difference, such as reduced class sizes and summer school for students who fail a grade - at least not in their current form - if they do not also reform their system of checks and balances.

It's a fair argument that fixing academics had to come first. But a better analysis of the financial implications of initiatives before they were implemented, and better forecasting of the cost of doing business, would have prevented a lot of the deficit.

These are lapses in prudence and accountability that make the audit by the Greater Baltimore Committee both necessary and welcome; an independent review by experts in education finance and management wouldn't be a bad idea, either.

We'd like to see all the parties go a step further and use the audit not just to "validate" what went wrong, but also to identify and adopt potential savings that let essential educational reforms keep blossoming, and put in place progressive planning and management practices that will stand the tests of time and changes of administration.

They need to do it with their eyes on the prize: It's not just about convincing Annapolis of solvency in order to win additional funding or shedding the lingering image of disarray; it must be done in a way that ensures every child receives the full benefit of every dollar invested in his or her education.

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