Fiscal wizard comes to aid of schools

City system's new chief turns to Neall for help in solving budget crisis

November 13, 2003|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Bonnie S. Copeland had just been appointed the interim chief executive of the Baltimore City school system when she bumped into her old friend, former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, who made her an offer: "Whatever I can do to help you, Bonnie, just let me know."

Three months later, Copeland handed him the school system's books, labor agreements, personnel data and a stream of other documents in hopes that Neall - known as one of Maryland's top fiscal minds - might help solve an ever-growing budget deficit that has been troubling lawmakers across the state.

After three weeks of 15- and 16-hour days, Neall returned this week with a list of desperate steps - including as many as 1,000 layoffs - that many city and state officials say are long overdue, recommendations that no one but Neall has managed to successfully put forth. To many political observers, it showed not only his fiscal acumen but also the widespread respect for a man who used to run an old country store in Davidsonville.

"He's doing a favor for the school system, and he's showcasing his talents as well," said former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, who was chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, on which Neall served. "You might not always like the cure he will recommend, but you will have to accept the validity of the diagnosis."

Because of the city's declining political influence in Annapolis, Neall also could become a pivotal advocate for Baltimore during the General Assembly session that begins in January. The city lost seats in the legislature during last year's redistricting, and several senior lawmakers from Baltimore such as Hoffman are no longer serving.

Neall has long supported Baltimore and its public school system. While in the Senate, he was chairman of the budget and taxation subcommittee on education and a member of the Thornton Commission, which developed a plan for distributing funds to the state's needier school districts.

Born in Baltimore, Neall grew up and attended public schools in Anne Arundel County. Beginning in 1969, he was general manager of Davidsonville Supply Co. before making his foray into politics.

In addition to his seven years as a state senator, Neall, 55, served in the House of Delegates from 1975 to 1987, including as a member of the appropriations committee. He also was Anne Arundel County executive from 1990 to 1994. He had long been a moderate Republican but switched parties in 1999. He lost his Senate seat to a conservative Republican in last year's state elections.

Neall works as a senior fiscal analyst for Johns Hopkins Hospital, which gave him two months off from his regular work schedule to volunteer his time to help the school system.

"We recognize the importance of it," said Ronald R. Peterson, president of the Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System. "He's sort of the right guy at the right time for the right job.

"He's had the reputation in Annapolis of one of the finest fiscal minds," Peterson said. "He has the capacity to be able to take very complex fiscal problems and make a meaningful explanation out of it."

On Tuesday for the school board, and again yesterday for the news media, Neall pulled out a flip chart and explained his analysis of the school system's problems.

What we know, he said, is that revenues look good, but the payroll is bloated. Enrollment is declining. And there's still too much spending.

Neall pointed out a $52 million deficit as of June 30 of this year that was discovered in September.

What we don't know, he said, is the outcome of labor agreements, outstanding invoices and the effect of rising health care costs.

"We know that a sweeping, radical change is needed to resolve this problem," Neall said.

The answer, he said, will not be simple. "This is not going to be a one-person operation. Hundreds of people are going to have to participate in this," he said in a news conference yesterday.

That seemed a euphemistic way of saying part of the solution is that 800 to 1,000 jobs will likely be lost to help rectify the school systems budget problems.

Despite that revelation, his analysis received applause from city and state officials.

"It will be the equivalent of a plant closing," Mayor Martin O'Malley said of the job cuts. But "we've got to restore fiscal health to this system."

City leaders have been pressing Neall to help win support in the General Assembly for other needs to keep the schools on the path to fiscal health.

With Neall's advice, the lawmakers, who have been troubled by regular reports about the school system's deficits and uncontrolled spending, appear likely to respond more favorably toward the school system's needs.

"He's very close to me, the governor and the speaker of the House," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said of Neall. "We respect very much his intellectual abilities, especially the command of the state budget and budgets of the local subdivisions.

"I'm certain that if Bobby Neall comes to Annapolis and says, `Baltimore City needs X, Y and Z' ... people in the House and Senate are going to agree."

Neall, who has four adult children, said his commitment to help the city schools runs through the end of the year. He said there has been no specific discussion of extending his time beyond that, though he would work to help the schools in any way he could.

"This is important," he said.

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