Schools plan sets alarm bells ringing

March 20, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

SO WHY does the curmudgeonly, nattering nabob of negativism side of me have a couple of questions about this $42 million city loan to bail out the school system?

Maybe it's because I have an interest in city schools that some, perhaps most, of the government types trying to clean up this mess don't have: two grandsons in the system. It is with their interests and education in mind that my curmudgeonly, nattering nabob of negativism side demands some answers.

Question No. 1: Why leave the current school board intact?

Folks have been demanding that board members -- six of whom were around when the budget crisis was developing -- be fired or resign. So far they haven't had the common decency to resign. No one in city government has even suggested they step down as a condition for getting the loan that reduces Baltimore's rainy day fund to a shaky $14 million. Rather than see a problem with the current school board continuing in power, some have adopted the Pollyanna approach.

"We are going to succeed," Mayor Martin O'Malley said in a March 18 Sun story by staff writer Laura Vozzella. "Failure is not an option."

Failure is guaranteed by not dismissing the current board. It's the same one that state Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula said in late February had failed in eight specific areas, among them "[providing] tangible efforts to contain further costs in fiscal year 2004 and fiscal year 2005."

That language will be dismissed as them mean old Republicans talking badly about pure-of-heart and noble-of-motive Baltimore Democrats. But let's hear the words of city Comptroller Joan Pratt, who is one of those pure-of-heart and noble-of-motive Baltimore Democrats, on the matter of our school board.

"The failure of the school board to implement the recommendations of Thompson, Cobb, Bazilio & Associates -- which conducted an audit of the school system in November 2003 -- Ernst & Young or the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable amounts to neglect," Pratt wrote in an op-ed piece that appeared in Thursday's Sun.

So when we have school board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch happily chirping in Vozzella's story about "thanks for taking a chance on us because we have not demonstrated fiscal accountability as we should have, but it's a new day," we know, in fact, it's not a new day but business as usual. Accountability has never been what this board does and it's not about to start now.

Pratt was the lone Board of Estimates member to vote against raiding the city's rainy day fund. She told Baltimoreans -- because someone had to -- of all the things wrong with Baltimore taking the High Noon approach and going solo while telling state officials to take a long walk off the shore pier near Main Street in Annapolis. That inspires another query.

Question No. 2: Why is Pratt being left out of the loop?

Under the plan that came with the loan, O'Malley will appoint a three-member "fiscal operating committee" that will make recommendations to the same school board that doesn't have "fiscal operations" in its vocabulary. Pratt wanted an appointee on the committee, but O'Malley and City Solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer told her, according to Vozzella's story, to keep an arms-length distance from the schools if she wanted to audit them.

There are a couple of things wrong with that. I want Pratt, whose job it is to be the watchdog for taxpayers' money, all over the fiscal operating committee -- and especially the school board -- like cold on ice. That O'Malley and Zollicoffer are telling her to keep an arms-length distance should set off some alarm bells.

Remember the last time these two guys did this? They told Pratt to keep an arms-length distance from a matter that was in her bailiwick, not theirs. Two years ago this month, Pratt was trying to get the Baltimore Ravens to pay $225,000 in rent on their city-owned training facility in Baltimore County. The Ravens balked, did an end run around Pratt and went scurrying to O'Malley and Zollicoffer, who cut them a 44 percent discount deal straight out of the house of wink-wink, nudge-nudge and hanky-panky.

City Council President Sheila Dixon feels Pratt should have had an appointee on the fiscal operating committee, which shows that at least two people in City Hall are thinking.

"I felt," Dixon said, "since we're all taking a risk, that she [Pratt] would want to be a part of that process."

Pratt should be, if for no other reason than that O'Malley and Zollicoffer want her to take a walk. But we should also want a voice on the committee like Pratt's, who summed up succinctly what the result of the school system's repaying loans will be.

"It subjects the schools," Pratt said, "to a perpetual line-of-credit status."

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