Schools send plan

officials await word

$42 million state loan contingent on report of accountability

`An extensive process'

Some say document is more a blueprint than specific steps

February 21, 2004|By Tanika White and Michael Dresser | Tanika White and Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials delivered to the governor yesterday a plan critical to getting a $42 million loan from the state that would help keep the system out of bankruptcy.

Former state Sen. Robert R. Neall -- who is advising the system on its financial matters -- hand-delivered the plan in a black binder to the governor's budget secretary, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., just after 4:15 p.m. yesterday.

"As promised, on time," Neall said.

Neall would not divulge the contents of the report but said it fully documents the financial condition of the school system and provides the justification for the state loan. Whether the proposal meets the governor's insistence on financial as well as academic accountability is not clear. And should the plan fall short, it is also not clear what the next step will be.

The school system is facing a $58 million deficit. As a result, school officials have had to lay off close to 800 employees this year, and officials maintain that more staff cuts will be needed to erase it.

On top of the deficit, the system needs an equal amount of money -- $58 million -- to pay its bills and meet payroll through June. The state's pledge of a $42 million loan -- along with $16 million in combined loans from the city and the nonprofit Abell Foundation -- is expected to ease the imminent cash flow problem.

But Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said this week that the state cash was contingent on receiving a comprehensive plan that included "appropriate restructuring and accountability elements."

Before Neall submitted the plan, it was reviewed by school board members who provided input.

DiPaula said the governor appreciated receiving the report but added little else.

"We need a tremendous amount of accountability from the school system," the budget chief said.

He declined to answer questions about the report and would not say when it will be made public.

"This is going to be an extensive process, and I'm sure it will take some time," DiPaula said.

City schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Some school board members said the document delivered to the governor's office is more of a general blueprint for potential ways to achieve financial accountability, rather than specific steps to be immediately carried out.

`Very general'

The plan, said board member Camay Murphy, is "very general in talking about how we're going to contain costs through 2005, but it doesn't contain a lot of specifics about who, where and what schools."

For example, although school officials concede that the system must have fewer employees to be more efficient, the document does not spell out a schedule for more layoffs, board member Brian D. Morris said.

"No, it does not specifically call for layoffs," Morris said. "[But] we have always said we have all of the options in front of us."

Murphy said one cost-cutting measure the plan promises in the 2005 school year will come from another increase in class size. This year, the system increased average class sizes to 20 in the primary grades and to 28 in grades 6 through 12.

`First salvo'

Some board members thought the report was just a starting point.

"My sense is that [Neall] is sending the first salvo," said board Vice Chairman Sam Stringfield, who agreed with other board members that the document detailed few specifics.

"He's piling up a bunch of stuff to start a conversation," Stringfield said.

Although Ehrlich asked Neall to craft the fiscal accountability plan, board members had a hand in the final draft.

Board member Dorothy G. Siegel said, "Some language was slightly modified."

And Morris said the plan should not be construed as only Neall's work, saying that the board helped to edit it yesterday. "It's the system's plan," he said. "And the system encompasses more than Bobby [Neall]."

Sun staff writer Mike Bowler contributed to this article.

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