It's time to fire the one behind the wheel -- the city school board

February 25, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

SO NOW the figures read like this: a $71 million cash flow shortfall by May 28, and a budget deficit of $75 million as of Jan. 31.

Those were the numbers released yesterday in a letter Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. handed out at his news conference in Annapolis. Ehrlich - flanked by Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, state Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, Sen. Verna Jones, Del. Nathaniel Oaks, Del. Salima S. Marriott and other state legislators - called the news conference to announce that all the assembled parties would try to solve the mess formerly known as Baltimore public school finances.

The new numbers - they seem to spike every few weeks - are up from $58 million each for the budget deficit and cash flow shortfall. Former state Sen. Robert Neall, who was called in to provide some fiscal accountability for the system, resigned Monday to protest what he said were his differences with the school board.

Ehrlich - who said he would provide the city with a $42 million advance that, with an $8 million city loan and another $8 million from the Abell Foundation would cover the old cash flow shortfall - added the condition that the school board provide some measures for paying the money back, containing costs and managing the cash flow crisis.

Those were just three of the eight items listed in the letter - written by state Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. to the school board - that Ehrlich distributed. Every sentence of that list begins with the word "fails."

The school board failed, according to DiPaula, to "provide tangible efforts to contain further costs in fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2005." Further down the list was perhaps the most incriminating failure of all: "to recognize the urgency of the situation and provide a commitment by the Baltimore City School Board to fiscal accountability."

So with all these accusations of what the school board failed to do, with parents and community groups calling for resignations, what do our leaders talk about?

The educational "accomplishments" of the city and state school partnership.

State school Superintendent Nancy Grasmick arrived a wee bit late at the noon news conference, the result of being stuck in traffic. She made a special effort to mention the "accelerated" test scores in Baltimore elementary schools - some of which are at or above the national average - the dropout rate that has declined 22.5 percent and the graduation rate that has increased 17 percent.

In other words, Baltimore schools are doing what they were supposed to do in the first place.

Perhaps Grasmick and O'Malley - who reiterated the "accomplishment" theme - will pardon me if I suggest that isn't so much an accomplishment as it is going from minus-5 to zero on a scale of 10. And let's not forget who should get the credit for the achievement: those Baltimore teachers O'Malley wanted to voluntarily take a pay cut.

Whatever good has been done in city schools, those of us with discerning eyes see the "negative slope" effect in test scores. Yes, the first and second-graders score at or above the national average in some schools. Then the scores go down when they're in second and third grade, decline even more in the third and fourth, and so on up the ladder. Plot those scores on a graph and you'll have a line with a negative slope. That's not progress. That's regression.

Baltimore schools have a long way to go. Grasmick and O'Malley do deserve some credit for pointing that out as well. The system has started on what is still a long journey to academic parity.

To continue, we need to talk not about accomplishments, but what needs to be done to get out of the current fiscal crisis. Of all those assembled yesterday, only Ehrlich broached the subject of getting rid of the current school board.

"All obstacles to fiscal accountability need to go," the governor said. "If that includes the school board, it includes the school board."

The gist of DiPaula's letter seemed to be that the school board is an obstacle to fiscal accountability. So what's the governor waiting on? Six members of this board were around when departed school chief executive officer Carmen Russo was paying a guy $100,000 - including overtime - to drive her around while teachers fighting the education battles in the trenches weren't making half that and driving themselves.

Does the governor think he's going to get fiscal accountability from the folks who couldn't tell Russo to drive her own car?

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