Crisis management

November 13, 2003

THE BALTIMORE City public school system has skated too close to the brink of bankruptcy. Two looming crises and a political reality prompted the school board this week to abandon a national search for a new chief executive officer and appoint interim chief Bonnie S. Copeland to the job.

Board members took a leap of faith, just days before district officials are scheduled to visit the state legislature to seek a funding increase. It's money they can justify they need, and must ask for with straight faces.

Politically, they aren't going to be able to do that without first cleaning up a mess: the revelation that the system's budget is off by roughly $24 million more than previously calculated. Without drastic cost-cutting, this would add another boulder to a mountainous $52 million accumulated deficit that makes one of the best-funded school systems in the state one of the worst-off.

With the mayor and state schools superintendent at their side, city school officials yesterday warned that by year's end they may lay off 800 to 1,000 employees in what will be the largest downsizing in the district's history. These must be real layoffs, not like the phony ones in the past in which district employees who were supposed to be terminated remained on the payroll.

Yet the painful days ahead of cost-cutting measures will only repair damage left from last year's faulty projections: What's needed is rightsizing and rebuilding the district's record-keeping and business services to better serve a steadily shrinking enrollment. That's the second - and long-term - crisis. The system budgeted for 94,300 students this year, but 2,600 fewer showed up, requiring adjustments in staff and anticipated revenue; and in two years, it's now predicted, that may fall to 85,000.

The school board risked the ire of parents and school advocates for the ham-handed way it handled Ms. Copeland's hiring. What would it have cost to wait one more day, to give the public a say in the discussion? The board pre-empted a public hearing that had been scheduled for yesterday to give parents and others input in the selection of the schools chief. It became, instead, a forum for delivering the system's bad financial news. Welcome aboard, Bonnie.

Just four months after she began serving as the interim CEO, she has accepted a steep challenge: On her watch, the district's management systems and procedures must cease to be half-done, done by hand and left to guesswork. If she delivers rising test scores while directing the agonizing but necessary streamlining of the system - a change so drastic that it may be impossible to spare classroom and teaching staff cuts - she'll be a hero. Heaven knows, the system needs one.

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