Turning point

October 21, 2003

THE UNEXPECTED resignation of finance chief Mark Smolarz presents the Baltimore school board and administration an opportunity to learn a lesson.

The opportunity is obvious and urgent: This is no time to be without a trusted financial manager.

This is a district wrestling down an estimated $52 million carryover deficit, and struggling to calculate its staffing needs and correct the bugs in a new computerized payroll management system. A district that still performs some of its major financial duties by hand.

Mr. Smolarz' departure comes as the system opens its books and financial practices to a much-needed review jointly paid for by the city, state and school district. It comes after district officials pledged to adopt a slate of fiscal recommendations made by a task force of city business leaders - a list of reforms to which Mr. Smolarz contributed, and which he'd begun implementing.

Whoever takes his place under the unforgiving microscope constantly trained on city school management must see the district clear of its chronic financial woes. And that person must be granted the appropriate budgeting tools and staff, and the powers of oversight and authority, required by the job.

Though these would be considered necessities for any successful $900 million corporation, they must have been deemed luxuries by the last administration, because Mr. Smolarz was expected to safety-pin the system's bookkeeping together without them. In addition, according to the business leaders' report this summer, he was expected to balance the budget without having the authority to hold departments and schools accountable for the data they submitted to him.

In addition, it must be noted that for about a year, Mr. Smolarz was expected to perform the duties of the financial chief and also serve as the district's chief operating officer - that is, manage the books, plus oversee the maintenance of all school buildings and run all non-academic departments, with an understaffed front office.

Mr. Smolarz and interim CEO Bonnie S. Copeland started repairing this - splitting the jobs, increasing the CFO's oversight power, demanding greater accountability - but more remains to be done.

Therein lies the lesson: Solving the city schools' financial problems must begin with building a management superstructure that works, outfitted with proper systems, staffing and checks and balances. That is said without passing judgment on Mr. Smolarz's or any individual's management skills or deficits.

A poorly built ship is likely to sink no matter how dedicated, earnest or talented the crew, how Herculean their efforts or long their hours in a storm.

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