Decentralized chaos

December 02, 2003

UNTIL EVERY invoice and employee can be accounted for, the Baltimore City school system's nightmare will go on.

That's the sobering reality behind the roster of 710 layoffs so far. Each is a personal tragedy for the pink-slip recipient, each one a stitch unraveled from the cloak that camouflaged the institution's financial disarray.

More are anticipated by year's end - but how many, and from which ranks? No one knows. No one's sure even how many of the laid-off employees work in schools, a point illustrating one of the major structural weaknesses contributing to the school system's near-bankruptcy.

Before the layoffs, the city schools' top administrative level was a hulk, disproportionate in size to that of other, larger Maryland school districts. The city schools had 139 more upper-level administrators than did the Montgomery County school district, which has 30,000 more students. Over the years, though enrollment shrank, managers held on to their jobs and benefits; for many, the ultimate perk was a license to spend the system's money.

Hailed roughly a decade ago as a reform intended to shift authority from the top management to the people working closer to children, the school system's decentralization of spending authority now appears to have helped do it in.

Decentralization in itself is not wrong, and when properly monitored can help a hidebound bureaucracy deliver funds directly to areas of need. However, Baltimore's central office in recent years lacked the ability to monitor the hiring and purchasing by its many department and school chiefs.

A kindergarten aide here, a tutor or mentor there, won't break the bank, right? Not unless you hire more than you can afford, or can't say how many or where you've hired them, or can't track the sources funding their wages. While schools were encouraged to be creative with their limited budgets, the central office wasn't keeping up.

Parents and schools rightfully bemoan the loss of these low-paid temporary and part-time workers who are highly prized in classrooms. They're being sacrificed because union contracts specify that the district must eliminate temps before laying off the better-paid full-time workers, whose ranks justifiably need thinning.

Here's the bitter lesson: If they truly value every employee, from the highest-paid manager to the 329 humble temps, the school district's officials now will centralize fiscal responsibility. Until then, even the district's auditing and recovery efforts are dependent on the rank-and-file managers, who ultimately aren't held accountable for their financial decisions but whose desk drawers and files hold the unpaid bills.

Schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland has called on them to dig up and turn over every outstanding invoice - $13 million accounted for so far, and a growing pile as yet untallied, including many past due. If only that mountain of bills prompted tears the way the pile of pink slips does: Until the former is resolved, the latter will continue to grow.

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