Don't let budget blunder sidetrack city schools

January 24, 2003|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THE BALTIMORE City school board and CEO Carmen V. Russo deserve a flunking grade for their management of this year's $31 million budget deficit.

They failed to confront the deficit until nearly halfway through the school year and then failed for weeks to present credible information and cost-cutting options. Worse, the layoff of 268 mainly low-paid employees two weeks before Christmas was an inexcusable blunder.

The deficit has now been largely fixed, but a storm of political and public outrage rages. Old charges that city schools are an inefficient, bottomless money pit have been resurrected.

Is this reaction overwrought? I think so. Still, the tragedy is that a relatively small and manageable fiscal problem has become a political and public relations crisis that can undermine four years of steady progress in city schools.

To start with, a $31 million deficit in a $900 million budget is not extraordinary. Even in good fiscal times (unlike the present, when school systems and states across the country, including Maryland, are drowning in deficits), uncontrollable fluctuations in revenues and expenses always cause budget adjustments. Had city officials begun to contain costs as early as July, when the deficit was first spotted, the precipitous layoffs and potential staff furloughs could have been virtually avoided.

In fact, the cost containment so far does not endanger core classroom reforms. Nor has there been any whiff of improper spending or unwise priorities. Rising expenditures are for programs that are essential to the school system's acclaimed reform plan, such as summer school, class-size reductions and special education. It was only a couple of months ago that city schools were being praised nationally and locally for progress in student achievement and management.

In this context, the uproar since disclosure of the deficit seems out of proportion. Yes, the school board and CEO initially bungled the shortfall. Yes, state legislators have a duty to demand accountability. But a few hyperventilating legislators in Annapolis and other critics should not use the deficit as a red-ink herring to distract attention from the larger issue of the inadequacy of funding for city schools.

The real danger is whether the new fiscally strapped governor and General Assembly will renege on the Thornton bill enacted last year that, starting in the 2004-2005 school year, provides substantial additional school funds. Until that aid appears, city officials will have to be resourceful in coping with revenues far below the cost of maintaining current reform initiatives.

And they must avoid more fiscal fiascoes.

One step is the proposed financial audit by the Greater Baltimore Committee. GBC will probably find that the board and Ms. Russo were asleep at the switch when relatively strong fiscal reporting systems sounded the deficit alarm. Still, an outside fiscal bill of health can restore confidence.

Another step is the call by some board members for the system to correct the lack of "transparency" in the flow of information to the board and the community. Top administrators must provide more timely, full and accurate data than in the past, including the recent budget deficit go-round.

A lot of the burden falls on Ms. Russo, a talented educator and bold leader who must rekindle the hopeful sparks that she struck when hired more than two years ago. Her interest in jobs elsewhere and growing strains in communication and trust between her top headquarters staff and others, including the board and community, threaten to erode her ability to inspire, lead and crisis-manage.

The city school system's progress in recent years has earned it a reprieve from recent harsh criticisms. The focus must return to effective implementation of the reform plan and getting the needed resources.

If city officials renew their commitment to do the right thing in the right and more open way, they'll have no trouble getting their groove back.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore City school board and a former state human resources secretary. He can be reached via e-mail at khettlem@erols.com.

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