Full disclosure

January 15, 2004

CITY PARENTS have every reason to be furious. The promise of school reform has turned into a pageant of pain, with increasingly Draconian cost-cutting threatened to repair the damage resulting from years of irresponsible overspending and mismanaged budgets.

Despite repeated pledges that classrooms and instruction would be spared the ill effects of measures taken to restore solvency, proposals laid out by administrators this week signal that the opposite remains possible. Their stated vision for a future in which a dramatically pared administration more efficiently supports the core mission of educating city kids has yet to take shape - stopgap measures so far pale next to the scope of the restructuring that's needed, and only begin to address the horror of the accumulated $58 million deficit.

The district has not made public the level of detail needed to evaluate its progress toward the goal: what positions should be eliminated for long-term efficiency, not just immediate savings. For example, preliminary information shows six director-level administrators, each with salaries of more than $90,000, were recently laid off, but how many more are there? State records show that Baltimore's administrative spending is disproportionately larger than that of other districts, but what's the reduction target?

So far, shockingly, North Avenue hasn't provided the answers to these questions. Its first round of layoffs yielded far fewer savings than needed, in part because so many junior, temporary and part-time workers were affected, and the end is not in sight.

The schools administration is seeking advances on its city and state allocations just to finish out the school year; meanwhile, it has asked its unions, including teachers, to approve furloughs or pay cuts of up to 7 percent for the rest of this year or face more layoffs.

Baltimore's school officials and their state partner still owe taxpayers a recovery plan, one that also will satisfy legislators in Annapolis, who will decide this year whether to fully allocate millions of dollars intended for school improvement - not budget bailout.

This is a pitiful place for the system to find itself, seven years after management restructuring that was accompanied by hundreds of millions in new state aid. Arguably, with its high special education costs and many poor students, that aid may not have been enough to finish the job of reform, but certainly it was enough to start. Yet incremental test score increases have not moved the system's achievement from rock bottom compared with other systems statewide. The system remains under state-imposed and now federally required sanctions. Reforms such as academic coaching and class-size reductions now have been derailed by poor financial planning.

A full accounting of what went wrong and a blueprint for reorganization are needed now.

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