What next

February 18, 2004

THE BALTIMORE school system got a little breathing room yesterday, but not much. Here are the tasks at hand:

By Friday, the system's financial adviser, Robert R. Neall, must be able to deliver to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. a plan showing how the schools will be able to pay back by next year a $42 million loan from the state's rainy day fund. Since last fall, Mr. Neall has been putting together a package to pull the system out of deficit, and the payback would fit in with that. Meeting the governor's deadline should not be onerous.

Assuming Mr. Ehrlich signs off, the next job is to persuade the General Assembly to give approval. Plenty of Marylanders outside Baltimore look with skepticism at anything that smacks of a bailout. The challenge facing the school system, the state Department of Education and especially the city's legislative delegation is to construct a plausible argument that the system is in better hands now, that the loan can be paid back and that Thornton money will pay for new classroom programs -- that it won't, in other words, all go toward paying off earlier mistakes.

Certainly, it won't do the state any good to have the city's school system implode. The $8 million loan from City Hall and the $8 million loan from the Abell Foundation are evidence of Baltimore's good faith.

Assuming the General Assembly gives the OK, the school system will have to plan for some serious belt-tightening. Within a year $50 million has to be paid back. Cuts already made this year will generate some of the needed money, but not all. More cuts in the system are coming. Bonnie S. Copeland, the CEO, says she wants to avoid laying off teachers, and no one can argue with that.

The system has to be realistic about projecting enrollment. Because of the way state aid is calculated, guessing too high is an almost automatic budget-buster.

The state must take seriously its obligation to keep watch on the system's finances. An argument is raging right now about who should have seen the budget disaster coming; what is clear is that the state education department, for whatever reason, wasn't paying as close attention up to now as it will have to in the future.

In an unexpected way, Baltimore has finally proved its point: Money matters. Since 1997, the system has substantially raised teachers' pay and cut class size; it instituted a summer program and a system of academic coaches (unfortunately without a thought to their cost). The result was better test scores and higher graduation rates. But the failure to balance the books, compounded by the squandering of money on ill-considered projects, puts those academic gains in jeopardy. All energy must now be focused on ways to keep that progress intact.

The system has to win back the faith of parents and teachers, sorely tested by the budget crisis. This may be the toughest hurdle, and it won't be surmounted overnight.

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