Free advice

October 26, 2003

THANK YOU. It must be said now, Robert R. Neall, before you're immersed in what often appears to be a thankless job managing the city school system's budget. Before school commissioners have a chance to scowl and try to hold you accountable for bottom-line problems compounded by their decisions. Before you hear the echo of the first "no" you direct at a spending request.

This district's finances, $52 million off target, don't need a babysitter: They need a bulldozer. Dig in. Audits have identified weak links in the planning process that hinder the development of sound financial projections. In addition, the budgeting process needs structural overhaul and accountability safeguards.

For this, you volunteered?

We applaud your civic-mindedness, and that of your employer, who has lent you to the school system to be an unpaid financial consultant while officials search for a new chief financial officer.

"Senator Neall brings a reputation of fiscal prudence to a situation that is in dire need of one," Christopher Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, told The Sun last week. If even a little bit of that rubs off on the district's administrative operations, you'll have accomplished a good thing.

If, while you're filling in, you can further streamline and modernize its cumbersome budgeting process, so that North Avenue can better support its core mission of educating the city's children, even better.

Your arrival by a creative arrangement is in itself a positive sign for which interim schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland must be applauded. Perhaps your status as an outsider, who has no claim to the title, will provide the political cover you need to excavate some of the problems underlying the system's chronic shortfall. As director of finance for the Johns Hopkins Health Systems, a former county executive and state senator, and a member of the Thornton Commission on state school funding, your expertise is unquestioned.

But will they listen? For it's not you alone who will be tested by this experience. The true question is, can a critical mass of school system employees be inspired by your example (or trained or muscled) to join the reform bandwagon with you? And while we're at it, are there other executives willing to step up to the plate, on behalf of children? A transportation industry executive who would consult on bus contracting and scheduling woes would be a good thing right about now.

Here's hoping yours will be the best free advice the school system has ever had.

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