School finance chief resigns

Smolarz had received brunt of the criticism for system's increasing deficit

`I am just very tired'

Top officials confirm he wasn't asked to leave

October 17, 2003|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Mark Smolarz, the Baltimore school system official who had become the lightning rod for criticism of the district's financial problems, resigned yesterday saying he was "worn out."

The system's chief financial officer, Smolarz had assumed many responsibilities over the past three years and is considered by some to be the schools' most effective problem-solver. He said yesterday he was not asked to resign by either a board member or the interim schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland.

Top school officials confirmed that Smolarz was not asked to leave.

"There is no question about Mark's commitment to the system, commitment to the children," said school board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch. "Mark resigned, that is what happened."

Smolarz said the amount of time he was spending at work and his considerable responsibilities prompted his decision to inform Copeland Wednesday night that he would be leaving Nov. 14. He said he had previously discussed with Copeland his concerns about the job as well as other work opportunities, and that she had helped him make the decision.

"I am 47, and I feel like 67," he said. "It is a lot of stress. It is affecting the time I spend with my aging father, my children and my wife. ... I am at a point where I have squeezed everything out as much as I can, and I am just very tired."

Hired in the fall of 2000 by then-schools chief Carmen V. Russo, Smolarz immediately faced a $20 million deficit from the year before. In his first year, he had cut the deficit in half and was given the job of chief operating officer in charge of facilities, transportation and a variety of other functions.

But in the past two years, he met with loud criticism as the cumulative deficit grew to $52 million. The public and school board questioned why Smolarz had not been able to better calculate the extent of the overspending and keep it under control. Although Russo was the top administrator responsible for spending, it was Smolarz who had to face the questions about the mounting deficit in public meetings.

"Many people called his integrity into question when the school system's budget was in disarray," said Christopher Maher, education director at Advocates for Children and Youth. "Only Mark and the North Avenue insiders know what really happened. But he certainly took most of the heat for the system and for the CEO."

Widely viewed as a likable and competent administrator, Smolarz was given numerous responsibilities in the system. When the chief financial officer quit last fall, Smolarz assumed the duties of two jobs, chief financial officer and chief operating officer.

"It was almost like every problem was put on him to solve," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "He was Mr. Everything. He was always responsible and always very honest, ... honest in the sense of giving you a straight answer."

But he often bore the sole responsibility of having to deliver bad news to the board and the public. At a meeting Tuesday night, Smolarz was grilled for more than an hour by the school board on changes in the budget. Board members called on Smolarz to fire or discipline employees who overspent their budgets in the coming year.

Larry Gaines, chairman of the Parent Community Advisory Board, said Smolarz became the "fall guy" for financial problems, even though the board had much of the responsibility.

"Mark is a good guy. He worked hard," Gaines said. He said he believes Smolarz's departure "is an indication that the budget problem is way out of hand and they can no longer hide it. I think the truth is about to come out."

Smolarz said he chose this time to leave because the board has just appointed a new chief operating officer, Carlton G. Epps Sr., who had been his special assistant since last winter.

Some said Smolarz's departure was an opportunity for the school district. "I think it was a good decision on Mr. Smolarz's part that he decided to step down. Maybe what we need is new leadership and new ideas [on] how we creatively deal with the deficit," said City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr.

Grasmick said that despite the deficit, she believed the system was better able to deal with its finances. The district has received outside analysis by local businessmen and an accounting firm.

Maher said Smolarz would be difficult to replace. "One thing that I have always valued in Mark," he said, "is his straight shooting and his willingness to speak openly and honestly about the incredible obstacles that the schools have to overcome in terms of limited financial resources and aging facilities."

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