Pitching in

February 15, 2004

BALTIMORE'S teachers are not to blame for the school system's $58 million deficit. Their anger is understandable -- but their refusal to help out with a pay deferral is regrettable. And the 600 teachers who called in sick Friday did their cause no good at all; the only people hurt by that were the city's students.

But there it is. The teachers won't help out. Along with the city's parents, they are instead demanding to know who was responsible for the system's financial mess. There could, in truth, hardly be a more pertinent question. The problem is that, under the city-state partnership that was set up in 1997, it was all too easy for all parties to evade accountability.

At this late hour, with an acute $16 million cash-flow crisis impending, some of those with a stake in the system are finally facing up to their obligations.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, who structurally has a small role to play in school affairs, nevertheless has a great deal riding on their future. City Hall should have seen this problem coming, and didn't. But the mayor is doing the right thing. He has kept his $8 million offer from the city's rainy day fund available, and has been trying to find some resource to tap for the other $8 million.

Mr. O'Malley has consulted with some of the city's foundations in search of a creative answer; no luck so far, but it is to his credit that he is willing to explore all avenues.

The city school administration, under its new CEO, Bonnie S. Copeland, has stemmed the disastrous increase in the deficit that became apparent in October. Structural cuts have been made that should put the system on a much sounder financial footing in the years to come; 800 lost their jobs in painful layoffs. The North Avenue headquarters still cannot give precise numbers of personnel, but that should be coming.

Ms. Copeland has said repeatedly that she doesn't want to solve the immediate deficit by laying off up to 1,200 employees. Indeed, layoffs of that magnitude would be self-defeating and unimaginably chaotic.

The school board has been largely left out of the rounds of talks over the system's future. That's not as it should be, in theory. But it was the school board, after all, that allowed this huge deficit to grow out of control in the first place.

The state provides the city school system with two-thirds of its budget and the governor appoints some members of the board. Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent, pointed out Friday that she did not have any of her people "living" at North Avenue, and this should change. Nonetheless, her office -- to a greater extent than the mayor's -- should have acted sooner to stem this deficit.

Her appointment Friday of a panel to find out what went wrong is a start toward accountability. Her refusal that same day to discuss how she might help the city through its current crisis was lamentable.

It would be gratifying if Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. accepted his share of responsibility for a city-state system. His interest in structural management changes is understandable.

But assistance, from all quarters, has been slow to arrive. Inaction has given way to brinksmanship, which hasn't solved anything but does stoke the alienation of parents and teachers. "We'd all like to be angry," the mayor said last week. But there isn't time just now. That can come later, after it's clear who helped and who didn't.

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