An Annapolis role, still

March 18, 2004

ROBERT R. NEALL is a kinetic, number-smart, easily exasperated man who theatrically stormed out of his post as financial adviser to the Baltimore school system. As much as his recent letter to the governor and General Assembly leaders warning about the likely failure of the city's effort to keep the school system afloat may seem a tad mean-spirited - he has a good point to make.

It's this: Just because Mayor Martin O'Malley has snatched the problem back from the state, nobody in Annapolis should imagine that the state is off the hook. There is, for one thing, the matter of Maryland's Constitution, which gives the state ultimate responsibility for the education of its children. If the city falters, it'll be a dark day for the schools and a black day for the mayor - and it'll be up to the state to pick up the pieces.

Mr. O'Malley, of course, is confident that the city will be able to see this through on its own. Yesterday, the Board of Estimates approved a $42 million loan to the school system, and at the same time created a three-member Fiscal Operating Committee that will keep watch on the development and execution of a financial recovery plan.

Much of the loan - $34 million - must be paid back by August; a City Hall finance crew that now includes William S. Ratchford II, former head of fiscal services for the state, believes that with prudent planning, strict and public oversight, and substantial cuts, the system can skim past the shoals of inevitable further cash crunches.

This is where Mr. Neall begs to differ. That's his right, and he is to be commended for speaking up. And see the dissent by city Comptroller Joan M. Pratt on the opposite page. Sharp questioning can only help the mayor and his aides refine and improve their plan for the school system.

In the meantime, prudence dictates that the political leaders of the state keep a sharper eye than ever on Baltimore's schools. As tempting as it may be to assume that Mr. O'Malley's (ungrateful) City Hall will just have to handle the problems one way or another, the city-state partnership that was forged in 1997 is intact, and Annapolis cannot turn its back on 91,000 young Marylanders. And what if Mr. Neall is right? Won't it be better - for the state - if its top politicians see the wreck coming?

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