Schools official grilled in court

Lawyers challenge chief financial officer's defense of city system

July 23, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The city school system was in court yesterday, trying to make the case that it was on the road to a financial recovery and providing a satisfactory education for Baltimore's 89,000 schoolchildren despite budget cuts.

Two judges, dozens of school officials, lawyers for six sets of litigants and a group of students converged in a stately, cavernous courtroom of the Edward A. Garmatz federal courthouse for the proceedings.

The school system did not have an easy time of it.

Lawyers for the State Department of Education, and others working pro bono on behalf of students, took turns assailing the school administration, a relatively new team trying to help the system recover from a $58 million deficit.

On the stand was Rose Piedmont, the school system's chief financial officer since November.

Piedmont painted a picture of responsible management and stable leadership, describing how the administration cut costs by reducing staff, implementing management controls and cracking down on employees who spent money without approval. Then the lawyers set in.

Valerie Cloutier, an assistant attorney general who counsels the state Education Department, grilled Piedmont over weaknesses in the system's financial controls and on the qualifications of the employees in her department. The state, which is under a court order to give more funds to city schools, was trying to show that the school system's problems were due to poor management.

"How many of the 65 [on your staff] have accounting degrees?" Cloutier asked. "I don't know," Piedmont answered.

"How many have business degrees?"

"I don't know."

"How many have college degrees?"

"I don't know."

The state wants the judges -- federal and state judges who are holding joint proceedings because they oversee cases that overlap in subject matter -- to declare that the state has fulfilled its obligations to increase state aid to city schools.

The extra infusion was ordered in 2000 by Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, who oversees the Bradford case, a consolidation of two lawsuits against the state filed in 1996 by the city and a group of students represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.

ACLU lawyers were there to argue that the state hasn't yet met its funding responsibilities, and that the school system's financial recovery plan -- which includes a swift repayment of a $42 million bailout loan from the city -- would drain educational services and undermine years of academic progress.

The city, meanwhile, was at the hearing to support the deal it negotiated in the spring to bail the school system out of a cash-flow crunch.

Another group of litigants, plaintiffs in a 20-year-old special-education lawsuit overseen by U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis, also opposed cuts to academic programs and argued that special-education students were hit the hardest.

Then there was ACORN, a community group that retained the colorful attorney and former Baltimore judge William H. Murphy Jr. to intervene in the hearing on behalf of students.

Murphy added an occasional jolt of levity, objecting to testimony that he said he could not understand.

When his turn came to cross-examine Piedmont, Murphy labored to draw out admissions that the picture is not as rosy as the administration is painting it.

He asked Piedmont about a recent state audit that charged the school system with misusing $18 million in federal grants for needy students. To lose that money, Murphy asked, would be "a serious blow to the quality of education for the children of this school system, correct?"

Piedmont answered curtly: "Correct."

Murphy pressed on. "You weren't happy that you didn't know about the $18 million until June 10, were you? Somebody should have told you there was a problem, shouldn't they?"

Nearly five hours passed before Piedmont was allowed to leave the witness stand.

There had been places where the chief financial officer's grasp of her job was revealed to be weak -- she could not describe the fiscal effect of failing to meet federal accountability standards -- but there were no stunning revelations.

Lawyers representing city students are likely to give the same treatment to schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, who will take the stand when the two-day hearing resumes today.

Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is expected to testify in support of the state's contention that more state money won't rescue a school system mired in management problems.

As the afternoon grew into the evening, the lawyers became anxious about how long it would take to get through the dozen or so witnesses scheduled to take the stand.

The ACLU's attorneys asked to interrupt the school board's case to present one of their witnesses, an out-of-town education expert who will testify about the harmfulness of the budget cuts to students.

Steven Ross, they said, has a 5 p.m. flight to catch back to Memphis, Tenn. He is expected to testify this morning.

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