When school officials start to think, it's underwhelming

May 01, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

THEY'RE thinking again.

The North Avenue Mismanagement Crew -- known somewhat derisively these days as "Baltimore school officials" -- have put on their thinking caps. This is after they've thought us into a $58 million deficit that required a raid on the city's rainy day fund to keep the system afloat. It was only a short time ago that the honchos thought they wanted to do away with social promotion. Then some parents objected to their kids being held back. The mismanagement crew reconsidered and, in the 2002-2003 school year, promoted nearly 3,000 students who had failed.

When this bunch gets to thinking, it's clearly a "Danger, Will Robinson!" moment for the rest of us. What are their latest thoughts?

They think they don't have enough money for summer school this year. Multimillion-dollar deficits often lead to such conclusions. But our leaders in the school system have a plan. According to a story by Sun reporter Tanika White that appeared in Tuesday's edition, here's what they're thinking.

High school students who failed courses will have to make them up at Baltimore City Community College. The parents of these students will have to foot the bill. Although this sounds like school system officials dumping their problem in the laps of BCCC, there is an up side. At BCCC, the students will at least be at an institution where the leadership is committed to education.

Yes, I can hear the yelps of protests from the mismanagement junta now. How dare I suggest they aren't committed to the education of our children? I don't. Raw numbers do. The mismanagement crew's thinkers have just as much access to the Maryland State Department of Education Web site as anyone else. They can get the "Selected Financial Data" expenditures report. The numbers therein are revealing.

For the 2000-2001 school year, Baltimore spent over twice as much for administration as Baltimore County, nearly twice as much as Prince George's County and over $20 million more than Montgomery County. All three of those systems have more students than the city.

Baltimore spent less on instruction, but more on administrative salaries and wages. Our system leaders spent nearly $4 million more on contracted services for administration than the nearest competitor, Montgomery County. In the section for mid-level administrative contracted services, our fearless leaders -- fearless when it comes to spending our money -- led the way again.

There was, of course, one area in which the mismanagement crew didn't outspend the three systems with more students. When it came to the categories of "textbooks" and "library and media services" in the reports, Baltimore officials showed they know how to pinch a penny.

Baltimore and Montgomery counties spent over twice as much -- and Prince George's County over four times as much -- on textbooks as Baltimore City. The figures for "library media and books" speak for themselves:

Baltimore County: $11.7 million.

Montgomery County: $2.8 million.

Prince George's County: $1.7 million.

Baltimore City spent exactly $216,290.

For the 2001-2002 school year, the figures aren't complete, but Table 1 -- expenditures for all purposes -- is. Once again, our system spent over twice as much for administration as Baltimore and Prince George's counties and over $27 million more than Montgomery County.

So the mismanagement crew's idea of educating children is millions of dollars spent on administration and contracted services and piddling amounts spent on textbooks and materials for our school libraries. So perhaps they'll excuse those of us who are a bit skeptical about the current plan, which is questionable when it comes to high school students, but sinks to low comedy when it comes to pupils in grades one through eight who are not up to par.

They'll "be encouraged" to enroll in "academic or recreational programs -- called `Summer Learning Opportunities' -- run by nonprofit, religious, community and other groups," according to White's story.

Don't get underwhelmed just yet. In addition to "encouraging" students to enroll in summer programs in which they'll gleefully do academic work they didn't do the entire school year, the mismanagement crew has another gem of an idea. They're going to post a weekly math problem on the system Web site.

Ah, yes, you can hear the mass chorus of "Oh, goody goody gumdrops!" cascading out of every first- through eighth-grade class in the city, can't you?

Of course you can't. What's going through your mind is what kind of Larry, Curly and Moe operation is the Baltimore public school system. And you're quaking in your boots because of one fact.

They're thinking again.

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