The empty jar

January 25, 2004

IT'S ALL VERY well that state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick has called for an investigation into whether anyone illegally benefited from the egregious lack of stewardship and breach of public trust that led to the current budget fiasco facing the Baltimore public schools. And in fact it would be almost refreshing to find that criminal malfeasance was behind the schools' financial mess.

But the sad truth is that the school system's $58 million deficit probably has more to do with waste than with fraud, and less to do with whose hand was in the cookie jar than that no one was minding the jar at all.

Ms. Grasmick announced that she was launching the inquiry when she appeared before state legislators Thursday, and in the same appearance she said of the schools' budget problems that "the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing." Well, yes and no.

It is certainly true that the so-called city-state partnership apparently offered both sides the opportunity to duck accountability and point the finger at the other guy. But it also is true that the growing deficit - and it has been years in the making - was no closely held secret; if the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing, it should have. And all hell ought to have broken loose well before now.

But now is what we're stuck with. City schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, along with adviser Robert R. Neall, are undertaking the thankless task of setting things straight, and none of the options is particularly appealing. After laying off more than 700 employees this month, Ms. Copeland warned Thursday that another 1,200 could face layoffs if the unions don't agree to furloughs or pay cuts. The options she has laid out include those 1,200 layoffs; furloughing employees (turning working pay days into no-work and no-pay days); pay cuts; and pay cuts with the promise of a payback after the system gets its expected $40 million in Thornton money from the state.

We understand the appeal of that last one, but find it particularly troubling. Never mind that the Thornton money is not a sure thing (though it ought to be). That funding was intended by the legislature that authorized it to bring equity to the state's public schools by enhancing the academic opportunities for children in the poorer areas, such as Baltimore. It was not intended as a bail-out program for a system badly crippled by incompetent - or worse - managers.

Of the remaining options, furloughs may be the least painful way to effect savings if they do not result in children missing school days but are implemented on in-service days, holidays and the like. And the furloughs should apply to administrators as well, from the top down.

Speaking of those administrators, layoffs may yet be the best option for real savings, but we won't know that until Ms. Copeland can make public a list of who's who in the bureaucracy at North Avenue: Who they are, what they do, and what they get paid. It says a lot that no one seems to know who is employed there - or why.

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