Adding up causes, cures

March 25, 2004|By Sam Stringfield

HERE ARE 21 things that the citizens of Baltimore and Maryland should know about the city public school system.

What caused its deficit:

1. Chronic, shameful underfunding. Every credible analysis of the city school system in the last 20 years has concluded that the system is underfunded by more than $200 million a year. Underfunding the education of students, many of whom are already at risk before entering school, is a prescription for disaster.

2. Very limited new funding over the past three years. State plus local funding for the city schools has increased less than 6 percent. Health care costs for teachers and other employees can go up that much in a single year.

FOR THE RECORD - Due to an editing error, an article on Thursday's Opinion * Commentary page incorrectly stated the number of Baltimore school system employees who were furloughed from central administration. It should have said "more than 300." The Sun regrets the error.

3. Increasing costs to compete with surrounding school districts. Since the school board arrived in 1997, the Baltimore school system has raised the starting annual salaries for new teachers from $24,215 to $34,973, an increase of 44 percent. For fully certified teachers, the pay starts at $38,112, up 57 percent in seven years. Virtually all experienced teachers have received equal or greater increases. Raising 7,000 teachers' salaries by at least $10,000 a year adds more than $70 million to an annual budget.

4. Rising benefit costs.

5. Increased time and costs associated with a new accounting and information system. This has been a source of great frustration for everyone. Too often in the past, important decisions had to be made in the absence of timely and fully accurate budget data. The most expensive of these decisions concerned the need to place a ceiling on hiring, even of highly qualified prospective teachers. Our human resources office overhired for two consecutive years.

While the city public schools' data systems are continuing to evolve, our administrators are making good use of data that are much more accurate than anything available as recently as last fall.

6. The incredible costs of administering the decades-long federal special education lawsuit. Special education administrative costs are nearly $15 million this year alone.

7. Facilities that are, on average, nearly 50 years old and were seriously underserviced for decades. The school system has more than $1 billion in documented repair needs.

8. In the absence of timely data unequivocally stating the need for greater caution, the school system's former administration was able to get the majority of the board to approve several bold new initiatives that, in retrospect, it could not afford. These included class size reductions, the hiring of 300-plus "academic coaches" and "coaches' coaches," and the offer of summer school to all students who were in danger of failing to meet new, higher academic standards. A very persuasive, now former, chief executive officer argued strongly that each was affordable.

What is being done to counteract the $58 million deficit? Over the last eight months, the board has:

9. Hired Bonnie S. Copeland as CEO, as well as a chief financial officer and acting directors of information technology and human resources. All have been instructed to focus on budgetary issues.

10. Re-energized the SchoolStat process.

11. Frozen several hundred vacant positions.

12. Furloughed more than 900 temporary and permanent, part- and full-time employees (more than 800 of them from central administration and fewer than 10 percent of them teachers). The effect of this: The school system's deficit is not growing, it is declining every week, and the rate of decline will increase over the summer.

13. Made midyear adjustments to the number of teachers, based on revised middle school and high school student enrollment.

14. Cut service contracts.

15. Delayed nonessential upgrades in information technology and adopted other cost-saving measures.

16. Accepted the generous offers of loans from the Abell Foundation ($8 million) and the city ($42 million).

17. Planned additional staff reductions for this summer. Our hope is to avoid further layoffs of fully certified teachers while hiring additional highly qualified teachers to fill specific needs.

18. Welcomed every credible investigation of our system. The city school system's accounts are audited every year. They are public records, as are the system's budgets and revisions. Every dollar spent is approved in public sessions.

Any institution the size of the Baltimore public school system has scattered examples of theft; officials have worked hard to identify and prosecute people accused of defrauding the system.

19. Advocated for full funding of the Thornton education plan, because without it, Baltimore will never be able to provide adequate educational opportunities to all of its children.

20. Remembered that the fundamental purpose of a school system is to educate our children. Over the last six years, Baltimore's children have achieved dramatic gains on a variety of tests and the percentage of our students graduating from high school has increased at what may be a nationally unprecedented rate. Hundreds of impressive improvements can be seen throughout the schools, and the people who created them must be remembered and honored.

21. Recognized the need to seize opportunities in the current situation.

Working within increasingly clear budget constraints, we need to give all 91,000 city schoolchildren a future that is not only brighter than today, but as bright as the hopes and dreams of any American.

Sam Stringfield is vice chairman of the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners.

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