An elected city school board might provide accountability

February 18, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

ON MONDAY, members of the Parent Community Advisory Board, among others, called for the resignation of the six Baltimore school board members who were around when the system's current money problems began to build.

If school board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch, Vice Chairman Sam Stringfield and members Kenneth Jones, Dorothy Siegel, Camay Murphy and David Stone had any sense of shame, they'd have resigned, without suggestions or exhortations, weeks ago. But Baltimore is the city where shame comes to die.

During the mayoral primary, Mayor Martin O'Malley, without shame, took credit for a couple of good things that happened in Baltimore schools: rising test scores and new computers. He doesn't take the blame for the $58 million deficit and $58 million cash flow problem - implying the fault lies with the state, Baltimore's co-partner in education. Hey, what good is a partner who can't take the blame for the bad while you take credit for the good?

But neither city nor state officials have seen fit to demand the resignation of the six school board members who apparently watched $58 million grow feet and walk out the door. Thank heavens the PCAB has. Add to their proposal two bills proposed by a Baltimore legislator and we may have a formula for accountability - not quite dead in Baltimore but surely on life support - in the school system.

Del. Jill P. Carter - who was elected in her first run for political office in 2002 - said one bill would require that the current school board membership be increased from nine to 13. If passed, Carter's bill would have the mayor and governor continue to appoint five members of the school board. Seven others would be elected and each would represent two of the 14 councilmanic districts. The position of board chairman would become a citywide elected post.

With an elected school board, we might avoid the early December debacle that saw the appointed board turn hundreds of concerned citizens away from a meeting and then have police officers bar the door. School boards accountable to ordinary folks avoid such scenes. School administrators accountable to taxpayers do their jobs, and Carter's second bill is designed to make sure that happens.

If passed, the delegate's bill would require that no school system employee be paid more than $150,000 a year. Carter wants that salary limit to be lifted only when the average test scores in Baltimore equal or exceed those in state averages.

"It's wrong to pay top management and contractors egregiously high salaries," Carter said, "while teachers and other staff are being laid off, furloughed or subjected to pay cuts. And it's especially wrong when our children are failing. I think it appropriate, in light of the fiscal and educational crises confronting our school system, to require top management to earn high salaries before receiving them."

Carter has only one question about the $150,000 salary mentioned in her second bill: Should it be lower?

Yes, it should. Let's make it lower. No administrator in the Baltimore school system should make more than $99,999.99 until the city's test scores are at or above the state average.

Such a law would eliminate the pathetic revelations Sun reporter Liz Bowie made in an article Feb. 13 last year about the 36 school officials who made $100,000 or more. One of them was now-departed schools Chief Executive Officer Carmen V. Russo, who cleaned up at $192,000. Her driver made $100,000 with overtime. By contrast, 22 made comparable salaries in the Baltimore County school system, which has more students.

And you wonder why there's a budget crisis.

Carter even has an answer for those skeptics who say elected school boards don't work.

"Elected school boards are not new to Maryland," Carter said. "Ten of Maryland's 24 subdivisions have partially elected school boards. And nationally, 96 percent of school board members are elected."

Baltimore's school board has never been elected. According to Sun education columnist Mike Bowler, the city's 20-member school board appointed by the City Council was replaced in 1898 with the nine-member one appointed by the mayor. Then, after the city-state "partnership" was created in 1997, the board became what we currently have: the Beast With 18 Eyes, none of which has 20/20 vision.

Carter mentioned her bills in a letter dated Friday to O'Malley. She took the mayor to task for saying - in a letter to Baltimore's state legislators -that fiscal oversight needed to be returned to city officials.

The city's fiscal oversight won't make a difference without an accountable school board, which she believes her bill would make possible. And the delegate had a few choice words about that $8 million loan the Abell Foundation will give to the city schools.

"Why should a system already in debt, go further into debt?"

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