Academic budget bared in dispute

City schools officer insists cost of teacher coaches not to blame for deficit

January 16, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Lambasted by school board members this week, Baltimore schools Chief Academic Officer Cassandra W. Jones opened her department's budget books yesterday to prove that adding academic coaches to the system's staff did not significantly contribute to a projected multimillion-dollar deficit.

"The focus on academic coaches should not be the focus for the whole budget deficit," Jones said. "You have to look at the big picture."

Jones was referring to a heated exchange that occurred between school board members and herself at a meeting Tuesday night. The system faces a potential $31 million deficit, and the board voted at that meeting on several cost-cutting measures toward balancing the budget.

Three school board members -- in particular J. Tyson Tildon -- grilled Jones about the cost of hiring 297 teacher-trainers called academic coaches, an initiative she began this school year. Angry board members indicated they believed Jones was intentionally underestimating the cost of the coaches in order to keep the program from being cut.

"What is the financial impact, according to you, of having the academic coaches?" Tildon asked Jones.

"$3 million," she replied.

"That is incorrect," Tildon shot back. "I did some calculations and came up with a significantly higher impact. I think we have to start getting real."

The tone of the conversation left Jones feeling like her "integrity was on the line," she said yesterday.

"Today had to be the day that we got accurate information out there," Jones said. "Because I don't lie."

Jones said the projected cost to hire the coaches -- nearly all of whom were promoted from inside the system -- was budgeted last spring at just over $18 million. But the final cost was just over $20 million.

Board members knew the cost of the coaches when they approved the budget, Jones said.

"This did not slip through," Jones said.

Schools Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz said that the way the printed budget is compiled, board members might not have seen a dollar figure attached to the program they approved.

"The way we do our budget, you would not be able to readily discern the total cost for academic coaches," he said.

Jones also said the $3 million figure she's been giving board members as the actual cost of adding the positions is accurate because all but a handful were already earning school system paychecks. The $3 million represents the difference between the salaries the employees had been earning in other positions and their higher salaries as academic coaches, she said.

That figure does not include the cost of replacing about 80 teachers who were promoted to coaches. Jones said she did not know how much replacing them cost the system.

Tildon said yesterday that he had not seen the information Jones released and needed to hear more.

He said he never knew the coaches were going to be so expensive. If he had, he said, "I know I never would have" voted to add them to the budget.

"This is definitely an information breakdown," he said.

Board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch -- who is in favor of academic coaches -- also said she was not aware of the true dent the coaches would make in the school system's budget. "Had we known we were in the straits that we're in now, [coaches] certainly would not have even been considered," she said.

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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