In the dark

February 17, 2004

IN THE NEVER-ENDING drama of the Baltimore school system's budget crisis, the message yesterday from most of the interested parties was this: The public business isn't any business of the public.

Only snippets of information about how the various sides hope to solve short-term, long-term and in-between-term money crunches dribbled out, even while it's evident that the mayor and the governor and the state schools superintendent and the city schools chief and her staff and the Abell Foundation are all in on the action.

One surprise: The impending cash-flow problems that Robert R. Neall, the system's financial adviser, has been warning about are in the neighborhood of $52 million, a lot more than anyone else quite realized.

A second surprise: Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said on Maryland Public Television last night that the state would provide a loan to help the system make it through the rest of the school year.

On the face of it, this sounds like good news. The problem is, it depends on the terms. One price, apparently, will be restructuring down the road to give the state more control of the system.

But here's yet another surprise: Even with a financial solution on this order, there may still be layoffs.

It appears that news of the unexpectedly large cash-flow problem was prodded out of the system by the Abell Foundation, which wanted assurances before lending $8 million. Mr. Neall reportedly made the case that the problem could be taken care of if the state agreed to advance some money ahead of its regular disbursements to the schools. But no one has been very forthcoming about how to get from here to there.

"This is not easy," Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent, said yesterday as she stood outside the city schools' North Avenue headquarters. Then she and Bonnie S. Copeland, the system's CEO, disappeared inside. They wouldn't discuss what sort of restructuring is being considered, why the size of this cash-flow problem has only now emerged, whether there might be any other surprises lurking nearby, or whether layoffs are in the offing.

Presumably, they'll present a united front when they have one.

This won't do. It's time for straight talk.

Teachers and parents are riled up, two different rescue plans have fallen by the wayside (and it may be a good thing, too, because otherwise that $52 million cash-flow problem would have blindsided just about everyone) and with every day that goes by the financial hole gets deeper.

The ungainly structure of the current city-state partnership invites confusion, and just about guarantees political maneuvering by the mayor and governor at times like this. It's easy for all sides to stick their oars in while disclaiming responsibility.

That's not helpful. Candor would be better.

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