City school official defends spending in the classroom

Chief academic officer says mayor, Copeland, Grasmick `blindsided' her

March 09, 2004|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore school system's second-highest ranking official sent a letter yesterday to state and local lawmakers, saying that the school system's deficit cannot be blamed on academic programs added in the last few years.

Cassandra W. Jones, the school system's chief academic officer and last remaining top official from the previous administration, said that schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley told audience members at a WBAL-TV town meeting that two academic programs Jones oversaw contributed to the deficit - an assertion she said was "appalling."

At the televised forum last week, O'Malley said that the system's $58 million deficit was not money that was stolen or misappropriated. He did not assign blame to any individual. Rather, "the vast majority of the dollars that contributed to this overspending were spent on academic programs that the system could not yet afford," he said.

Jones apparently believed she was being personally attacked. In her letter - which was sent to legislators, ministers, educators and "concerned citizens" - Jones defended her budgetary practices, calling O'Malley's statements "false information." In an interview, she said that O'Malley could have received such information only from Copeland and Grasmick.

"I felt totally blindsided," Jones said yesterday.

Copeland said yesterday that she could not comment because she had only recently been made aware of Jones' concerns.

Grasmick disagreed with Jones' assertion that she had blamed academic programs for the budget problems. After O'Malley made his statement, Grasmick said, she asserted that there were several factors involved in the deficit, not just academic programs.

"I simply said that would have been one piece," Grasmick said. "I felt there were actually three reasons, and I didn't say which contributed most to the problem."

A spokesman for O'Malley said that the mayor did not attack Jones at least week's meeting or say she was to blame for the deficit.

"The simple fact is that the school system overspent its budgets," Steve Kearney said. "And new programs at a time when you're already running a deficit certainly contributed to that."

O'Malley made reference to several new programs and initiatives that he said the system could not afford, including summer school for students in danger of being retained and the addition of almost 300 teacher-trainers called academic coaches.

Jones has maintained for more than a year that those items did not contribute to the deficit because they were budgeted, approved by the school board and did not result in overruns.

School board Vice Chairman Sam Stringfield said he voted against adding academic coaches to the system's employee roster because be didn't think the system could afford them.

But the board was swayed by Jones and former school chief Carmen V. Russo, who insisted that the coaches were necessary, he said, and agreed to pay what amounted to more than $20 million for them.

"It was in retrospect a mistake to fund the coaches," Stringfield said, "and [Jones] was one of the people who argued for them."

Jones said yesterday that her letter was written in defense of the truth.

"My letter does not say anything about Dr. Jones," she said. "It said `factual information.' You have a budget. You lay out the priorities in that budget. That budget gets approved. If you approve the money for academic coaches and you don't go over budget, then those coaches should not be used" to explain the budget deficit.

In the letter, she said that she has been on probation since October and was told not to speak out publicly against Copeland or the school board.

By sending the letter, Jones said, she assumed that she was putting her job in jeopardy.

"But colluding with those making false statements by being silent is not an option for me," Jones said.

Board member Camay Murphy said she didn't know if Jones' violation of the probation terms would mean that she would be fired.

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