A whiff of insincerity

February 25, 2004

THERE IS NO question that the Baltimore school system is in a deep financial bind, that the cash-flow problem must be addressed quickly and thoroughly, and that the school board has demonstrated its ineffectiveness. So when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said yesterday he wanted legislation that would allow him to force the system into receivership, why did he leave the impression that he had an unspoken agenda? A place to begin looking for an answer to that would be the letter his budget chief, James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., sent to the school board, in which the righteous indignation was heaped on with a trowel.

Let us point out that for seven years, Baltimore's schools have been run by a city-state partnership. Now the state discovers that it's shocked at the mess that was building all along.

Fine. Paying attention is better than not paying attention. Maybe the governor and his aide felt they had to exaggerate for effect, in order to bring about real change. It's worth noting that the financial plan devised by Robert R. Neall, the ex-adviser to the school system, differed from the one eventually submitted by the city school board principally in that it would have imposed an across-the-board 5 percent pay cut, which would have saved about $10 million this year. Mr. Neall's plan was presumably acceptable; the school board's proposal was dismissed as insufficient in nearly every particular.

This is what's worrisome: If it becomes apparent that the principal point of Mr. Neall's resignation and the move toward receivership was to tear up the teachers' contract and cut their pay unilaterally, that will have long-lasting consequences for the system, none of them positive. It was one thing to ask the teachers to accept a pay deferral as a way of helping the system; we supported that proposal and were disappointed that it was not accepted. It would be another thing altogether to push the system into receivership solely to extract money from the teachers. That would be telling them that they are to blame for the schools' financial problems - which, manifestly, they are not.

These fears can be allayed, certainly, by sincere and sensitive leadership. Receivership is a drastic step, to be used only if it will accomplish a needed overhaul of the system's procedures and accountability. The governor would have to demonstrate that it would not be simply a punitive measure, and he would still have to make the argument that nothing short of receivership would suffice.

But if he takes over the system, he should understand that he is taking over all of it. State responsibility would not end with tough financial strictures. Test scores, graduation rates, dropout rates, truancy, teacher quality, proper building maintenance - for all these issues, and more, Baltimoreans and state taxpayers would have to hold the governor accountable.

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