The shell game

November 14, 2003

THE NEW BALTIMORE schools chief, Bonnie S. Copeland, explained with great diplomacy this week that she's interested in fixing the district's financial scandal, not affixing blame for it. That's understandable, even gracious, given the evidence that her bosses and a revolving door of past school officials are largely responsible for the huge mess that she's just been hired to mop up.

But for the sake of the 800 or so staffers who will lose their jobs as part of the solution, and the 91,000-plus children whose educational welfare depends on that, and the state and local taxpayers who support the district, there must be a full and public accounting of exactly what went wrong and who was responsible -- even if it implicates a generation of school superintendents, school finance officers, school boards, mayors and administrators.

For as Ms. Copeland also pointed out on her first day as chief executive officer, the problem cannot be fixed until it is fully understood.

There is obvious history here that must never be repeated.

The cost containment plan advised by former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, billed as a necessary and painful corrective action, means doing less with less, but if in the end:

the school board continues approving projects without first ascertaining their cost and the availability of funds;

the founders and guardians of the city-state partnership do not insist that each fiscal year end with a balanced budget and provide better technical services to help the system comply;

the chief executive officer and her Cabinet do not heed staff accountants' warnings or use the best tools they can acquire to improve budget projections;

and district departments and managers continue to deliver budget calculations that do not reflect reality,

then the institution will remain broken -- and broke.

Make no mistake, there is plenty of blame to go around. Likely as not, there is no single source of irresponsible spending but rather a profound calamity of conflicting priorities, fractured agendas and outmoded, error-prone budgeting procedures.

A case in point: The task of determining staff layoffs is problematic because so many records are kept by hand and there is little or no accounting of where the money originates for any particular position. It would be foolish to eliminate jobs that are supported by federal grants, but which jobs are those? Who knows?

This school "system" may not suffer from corruption of the devious kind, but it is corrupted nonetheless. Baltimore deserves far better.

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