Accountability lesson

January 28, 2003

WHAT WILL IT take for the Baltimore City schools to regain the confidence of their major "investors"?

The school board has laid off part-time staff, frozen spending and borrowed millions to cover debts to begin resolving an unanticipated $31 million deficit. Further staff reductions, and increases in class sizes, may be needed to balance next year's budget.

The perception of troubled leadership has prompted a review of the school system's financial practices by local business associations. But it will take much more than that to ensure that the accountability lesson has been learned.

A comprehensive evaluation of Baltimore schools management is needed for the good of the schools over the long term. The school system should examine its spending on bureaucracy vs. teaching; on contracting; on health care; on union agreements. And more: What's needed also is a thorough and independent review of the 5-year-old city-state partnership that oversees the school administration and can rightfully take credit for city schools' academic advances, but structurally may need fine-tuning.

For example, within the partnership, are there too many chiefs? Is it too hard for the school administration to say "no"... or "wait for fiscal analysis"... or "phase in that program instead of launching it whole hog today"? Have the partners failed to provide the school system the expertise needed to conduct and respond to such analysis? Do they heed the warnings if and when they come?

Certainly, in the rush to repair what's broken academically, the school board and its overseers have paid too little attention to the financing of reform, and they need to review their decision-making processes. The results of lapses in oversight have been compounding: To balance the books for next year, Baltimore may be forced to pare back the very efforts that have contributed to test-score success.

We would caution anyone who thinks that the simple solution to the school system's accountability problem is to lop off heads in the current administration.

Baltimore schools' financial accountability problems have outlasted a series of fiscal managers and superintendents since the city-state partnership began, which suggests that the problem may be deeper in the infrastructure.

Certainly a good idea, the study coming from the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable can be counted on to identify efficiencies and suggest management checks and balances. And to ensure its integrity, the audit team members must not be school system contractors, or designers of the schools' current financial systems.

But though this study has been called an audit, a distinction should be made: The business groups do not plan to dissect the school system's spending, or analyze its educational priorities, decisions, investments and results. Neither group has the expertise to do this. Neither has time, frankly, given the urgency for assurances and answers fueled by pending legislative action on school funding.

For the long-term health of the school system and the welfare of the children it serves, it is time for a comprehensive evaluation of the school system's management, from the partnership to the schoolhouse. Anything less will be just a Band-Aid.

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