And just the other day it all seemed better

Deficit: Revelations of a $31 million shortfall are leading to questions about city schools' accountability and leadership.

January 26, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Two months ago, no one would have predicted the city schools would lay off more than 200 employees before Christmas, or be asking 12,000 employees to accept a two-day furlough.

Before November, the city schools were viewed as an urban system on the rise, led by Carmen V. Russo, a strong leader who had wisely used an infusion of state funds to improve learning for city children.

Today, school officials are seen as having bungled their bookkeeping, forgetting to budget a $10 million expenditure and going on educational spending sprees without cash.

Having now taken steps to prevent a $31 million deficit from accruing this year, they will have to begin addressing what may be the more difficult questions of leadership and accountability marring the public's perception of the district.

"I think the board admits that they have responsibility [for the deficit]. I don't know if the CEO [Russo] has admitted it," said Mayor Martin O'Malley. "Clearly, there was a lack of accountability and management in terms of the financial issues. That is clearly unacceptable."

O'Malley, who turned to business leaders for advice on how to make the city run more efficiently three years ago, wants the school system to undergo the same careful review by business.

Already, the school board has voted to borrow $15 million, lay off part-time staff, freeze spending at schools and ask for furloughs to end this school year with a balanced budget.

But further action - including raising class size and laying off academic coaches - will likely be made at a board meeting Feb. 3 to keep next year's spending in check and erase a $21 million deficit carried over from previous years.

State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick said that beyond those measures the state board will be expecting the city schools to ensure large deficits aren't run up in the future.

Neither O'Malley nor Grasmick is calling for board members or Russo to step down, but in interviews neither would give her a strong endorsement. Grasmick said, "I think it is premature to say we don't have confidence in leadership."

And others believe the way in which the finances were handled suggests a leadership crisis.

Carl Stokes, chairman of the Maryland Education Coalition and a former school board member, believes the board ought to be questioning whether its leadership team, including Russo and Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones, should stay. "I think they should be thinking about that leadership team. I think it has not served them well in the last 18 months."

Board members, who believe they were not given enough information to make proper spending decisions, have subjected staffers to unprecedented dressings-down in public. At a televised board meeting Tuesday night, three board members grilled Jones for underestimating the cost of academic coaches, an initiative she began last year. Jones fought back in the press the next day, saying she was being unfairly accused of lying.

And board member Kenneth Jones said last week he was more concerned about the "crisis of leadership" than solving the immediate financial problems.

Even if the board takes no action to change the leadership team, many educators have speculated whether Russo will fill out the remaining year and a half of contract. Last fall, she was a finalist for a high-level education job in Florida. "I am definitely not looking for another job. I am very busy right here," Russo said last week. A change in the composition of the board will come in June, when J. Tyson Tildon, Colene Daniel and William Struever leave after five years on the board. All three have been considered instrumental in reforming the system.

The new members will be jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor, from a list created by Grasmick. By July, the makeup of the school districts board and top administration could be different.

Not only is the current school board feeling the need to fix the financial problems before such a large turnover in staff occurs, it is under external pressure from the mayor, Grasmick and the legislature.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat and an architect of legislation that revamped the city school system in 1997, believes board members "have abdicated their responsibility as managers of the system."

"We are not going to sit idly by when the budget comes in for the schools of the state. If it hasn't been resolved, they are going to have some difficulty out of the Appropriations Committee," Rawlings said. More than half of the city school budget - some $500 million - comes from the state. The city's share is about $200 million and the federal government provides $150 million.

Rawlings said he believes neither the board nor Russo was given enough information about the system's fiscal problems from the finance department. Still, he said, it was up to board members - who he believes have been hard-working volunteers - to make sure questions were asked of staff so that they did not approve too much spending.

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