City schools Q&A with The Sun's Liz Bowie

Education reporter answers readers' questions on the system's financial crisis

April 06, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Glen Mendels, Baltimore: According to The Sun, under the [former] administration of Superintendent Robert Booker, the city schools system overspent its budget by $33 million, and ended the year with a $18.8 million deficit. It appears that the deficit began under Booker's administration, since the system had a surplus for the two previous fiscal years. Could you identify where the system overspent funds under the Booker administration?

Bowie: The largest area of overspending was on a computer management system that had millions in cost overruns.

Arthur Laupus, Columbia: Does the Baltimore City schools chief executive officer, Dr. Bonnie S. Copeland, still have at her use and disposal a chauffeur? In the past, this chauffeur was making in excess of six figures a year.

Bowie: The school police officer is now called the "executive protection officer" and he is paid $52,960 a year. He drives Copeland during the day if she is going somewhere, but Copeland drives herself to events after the regular work day unless there is a concern about her security, according to Edie House, the public information officer. "This CEO has been very cognizant of how much time he drives," House said. Since staff layoffs, the officer also has had to pick up administrative duties in the CEO office, including answering phones and dealing with e-mails. He also is in charge of security at board meetings and other events in the building.

Artie, Baltimore: Can a further breakdown of spending be possible? I would like to know what the administration's spending was on for it to have increased 51 percent between 1998 and 2002.

Bowie: A breakdown is not available from the state. We do know that spending rose in part because the system broke away from City Hall in 1997 and did not have the infrastructure it needed to do payroll, finances and other basic functions.

Kun Sun Sweeley, Baltimore: As a former student of the Baltimore City Public School System, I am very concerned regarding the school system's financial crisis. I have two questions to ask. One, is it realistic to say that the school system debt will be under control within the next two or three years? Two, I was a former student of Lake Clifton High School. What is going to happen to Lake Clifton High School since the school system is in such a financial crisis and what are the current plans for School No. 426, the new high school that's within Lake Clifton?

Bowie: Currently, the school system hopes to get rid of the deficit in the next two years. If the system keeps to a tight budget, it should be possible. I am not aware of any plans to change Lake Clifton since its breakup into several high schools last year.

A baltimoresun.com reader from Baltimore: Who was [former schools CEO] Carmen Russo's driver, the one who racked up all the overtime? [$100,000] seems like a lot of money for someone who was "just an employee!"

Bowie: Carmen Russo's driver is a school police officer who has been in the system for many years. He has driven around the last four chief executive officers. When he worked for Russo, his overtime went through the roof because she used him more after normal working hours. For instance, he drove her to night meetings or dinners.

Josh, Towson: When city school administrators were calling for teachers to take salary cuts of one form or another, did the administrators, themselves, propose to similarly cut their own salaries?

Bowie: Yes. Everyone, including the CEO Bonnie Copeland, would have taken the same pay cut.

Laura Byrd, Baltimore: What is your take on the new paycheck policy of the school system? It was in the "Just the Facts" publication distributed this past Friday.

Bowie: A new computer system, called the Human Resources Management System, will come online in the next several weeks. At that point, City Hall will no longer be involved in issuing paychecks. It will save money because the city charges for this service.

Michael, Columbia: It seems all the claims about inadequate Baltimore City school system funding are directed at the state. The state of Maryland funds 75 percent of Baltimore City's school system, while they fund only 25 percent of Howard County's. Shouldn't the city of Baltimore increase it's funding?

Bowie: The issue of how much money each county and the city should contribute is complicated because each county has a different tax base to draw on. Many people believe the city should contribute more, but the city would have to raise property taxes to increase its contribution by the hundreds of millions of dollars per year you are talking about. Since the city already has the highest property tax in Maryland, the mayor and city council are reluctant to do so.

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