Schools in a squeeze

November 20, 2003|By Kalman R. Hettleman

THE EDUCATIONAL equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction landed on the North Avenue headquarters of the Baltimore City school system last week.

City officials, including the school board and Mayor Martin O'Malley, announced the imminent layoffs of 800 to 1,000 school employees because of a just-uncovered, massive addition to an already huge fiscal deficit.

The fallout from this bombshell will be far and wide and deep.

First, children across the system will suffer a lot.

Officials say that most of the cuts will be outside of the classroom. But there may be layoffs of classroom teachers and other school-based staff. School budgets, already trimmed this year, will be further reduced. And contrary to conventional rhetoric about a "bloated bureaucracy," the widespread loss of non-classroom employees will damage the quality of education in the classroom.

The system can't run and education reform can't fly without adequate specialists and support personnel in curriculum development, teacher recruitment and training, research and evaluation, information systems, transportation, food services, school security, building maintenance and, last but hardly least, budgeting and accounting.

An ignored cause of the school system's recurring budget fiascoes is the lack of sufficient experienced fiscal staff, a shortfall resulting in part from too much work and too little pay. Some dead wood exists, but mainly there aren't enough well-nourished trees in the administrative forest of the city school system.

State data showing that the city has the highest administrative costs per student of any Maryland school district are unreliable, especially since they do not take into account the far greater burdens in an urban school district with uniquely complex instruction and management tasks. Since the city-state education partnership began in 1997, state officials and sundry fiscal experts have had access to the city's administrative budget, yet no one has reported excessive staffing.

Yes, the city board and top executive staff have been asleep at the fiscal controls, and greater efficiencies are possible. Still, there is no evidence that the deficits are the result of improper or unnecessary spending. All told, the main moral of the story of the wreckage at North Avenue is not fiscal waste or payroll padding but underfunding of essential instructional and management functions.

To truly clean up the mess, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly must not sweep under the rug the absolute necessity for full, on-schedule funding of the Thornton state education aid legislation, which will remedy the fiscal needs of schools in the city and counties.

The layoffs will also be personal tragedies for many public employees who have devoted their lives to serving children, often at financial sacrifice. Most, as noted, are underpaid, underappreciated and overworked. And like last year, the pink slips will arrive in the midst of the holiday season.

Moreover, the abruptness and severity of the layoffs will further demoralize all staff and dry up the pool of people willing to risk a career in public education.

Fortunately, there is at least a bit of good news within the rubble. The board deserves credit for discovering the ticking fiscal time bomb and taking bold action; the damage could have been even greater down the road.

Moreover, board members did the courageous and right thing in short-circuiting a public process and hiring Bonnie S. Copeland as permanent CEO. Her appointment not only paves the way for stable fiscal leadership, but it should end inner power struggles that were hampering progress in instructional reforms.

Now, the board and Ms. Copeland must change not only the fiscal culture, but also the culture of closed-door decision-making. Even before aborting the public process for selection of a permanent CEO, they - perhaps because of their preoccupation with fiscal crises - displayed no more transparency and openness than their recent predecessors.

They must fully engage the community in the rebuilding process. There's more than enough work to go around if our children are to be rescued from the latest upheavals and enabled to succeed academically.

Kalman R. Hettleman is an education consultant, a former member of the Baltimore school board and a former state human resources secretary.

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