City schools officials, board should bear blame for budget

February 02, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

BALTIMORE. What a town. Figure this one.

Former police Commissioner Edward Norris spends less than $200,000 from a Police Department supplemental account. His expenditures for travel, gifts, meals and general schmoozing from nontaxpayer dollars create an uproar, with outraged letters to the editor and calls for an independent auditor to look into the mess.

Baltimore's school budget looks as if it will be $19 million to $31 million in the red. That's taxpayer money, involving a system where far too many schools don't measure up academically and underpaid teachers have to reach into their pockets to cover the cost of materials.

Part of the "plan" to reduce the deficit had called for furloughing those underpaid teachers who foot the bill for things the system should pay for. No one has used the phrase "independent auditor" when it comes to the situation on North Avenue. Where the education of our children is concerned, it's as if the words "independent" and "auditor" have vanished from the language.

Some will claim no independent auditor is needed, that budget deficits in large school systems are just one of those things that happen from time to time. That would be the case, if it weren't for the accusations folks are making off the record. There have been allegations of large expenditures to renovate North Avenue offices and millions of dollars to pay "consultants."

The question of how much was paid for consultants and what they were paid to do was put to the folks at North Avenue. They were kind enough to leave me a 69-page "procurement agenda" for professional services, goods and services, lease agreements and purchases, which I may get through one day.

But a sign at the front desk of North Avenue headquarters may tell us much more than budget deficits about what goes on in this school system. The sign told of a meeting about the 2004 budget from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. yesterday. A sentence at the bottom, in the very headquarters of the place where folks are responsible for learning in this city, advised visitors that "THERE WILL BE NO PULIC COMMENT."

Other reasons for the deficit have been given - and on the record.

"Part of it was the overexpenditure on summer school," said Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English. "They didn't budget for the number of kids they had going to summer school. It was a significant amount over the budget."

It was an amount that could have been partly defrayed. In the past, parents of high school students had to pay a fee for summer school. Last summer, all students went for free. It's as if North Avenue honchos figured summer school would pay for itself.

According to English, the rank and file in her union figures those honchos are applying some double standards.

"The membership wonders why they're being held to standards and if they don't meet the standards, they're gone," English said. "The leadership doesn't seem to have the same standards."

That's because no one seems willing to say to schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen Russo and Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones, "You ran up a deficit. It appears a significant portion of it could have been avoided. You're out of here."

Sound too harsh? No harsher than asking teachers - who had absolutely nothing to do with running up the deficit - to suffer by taking a two-day furlough without pay. English said BTU members categorically rejected the furlough plan.

"They give enough to the system," English said. "They use their own money to buy supplies and make copies of things because copiers don't work. They feel they're disrespected as professionals. The paperwork is insurmountable. Then [North Avenue] is asking for more."

Part of the disrespect teachers feel comes, English contended, from the school board, which bears some of the responsibility for the deficit. Some might feel it's not inappropriate to ask that in addition to Russo and Jones, some school board members find other things to occupy their time. English says a state legislator has asked the BTU for its recommendation for a new school board member, as has a staffer for Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele.

The BTU, despite having cooperated with school management on matters in the past, felt the disrespect its members encounter when its leaders first learned of the budget crisis not by a call from anyone at North Avenue, but in the newspaper.

BTU members can consider the diss a reminder that, by definition, their relationship with North Avenue is strictly adversarial.

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