State miscast as bad guy in city schools saga

August 25, 2004|By GREGORY KANE

IN EVERY GOOD melodrama, there's a villain. In the continuing melodrama of Baltimore's schools (it would be a comedy, but nothing's funny here) we now know, courtesy of Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, who that villain is.

State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

All you silly sillies who thought the villains were the folks within the system who ran up the $58 million deficit that nearly brought what education there is in Baltimore to a halt now stand corrected. The folks who run this school system aren't required to act responsibly. The only obligation is for the state to pony up more money when city folks holler "Gimme!"

Kaplan so ruled in a 70-page opinion handed down last week.

The state of Maryland should give city schools another $225 million by 2008 and has "unlawfully underfunded the Baltimore City school system by $439.35 million to $834.68 million."

Oh, Kaplan didn't mention Grasmick or anyone else by name as the villain. But when he uses the word "state," who else is there?

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. wasn't Maryland's chief executive when Kaplan ordered the state to give extra dollars to Baltimore schools in 2000. And don't expect anybody in the General Assembly - which approved but didn't fund the Thornton plan that required more money for public schools - to take the blame.

That kind of leaves Grasmick holding the bag.

For her part, Grasmick had lawyers for the state argue that its funding for Baltimore schools had risen by $2,360 to $2,478 per pupil from 1999 to now. That, the lawyers also contended, was well within the range of the $2,000-to-$2,600-per-pupil increase in state funding Kaplan said Baltimore needed when he made an earlier ruling four years ago.

Kaplan bluntly said the state's figures were in error. The more accurate additional state allocation, according to Kaplan, was between $1,300 and $1,700 per pupil. The state, Kaplan concluded after hearing days of testimony in a lawsuit brought by parents of city children, had not met its constitutional obligation to Baltimore schools.

So be it. But isn't it too bad there's no similar constitutional obligation to compel city school officials to spend money like they have some sense?

In all of Kaplan's opinion, in which he said that Baltimore could do more to finance its own schools and that school officials bear some of the responsibility for the budget crisis and how "at-risk" students are being short-changed, it would have been nice if the judge had questioned why Baltimore school officials annually spend more on administration than systems with far more students.

Let's recap for a moment.

For the 2000-2001 school year, according to the "Selected Financial Data" expenditures report found on the Maryland State Department of Education Web site, Baltimore spent more than twice as much for administration as Baltimore County, nearly twice as much as Prince George's County and $20 million more than Montgomery County.

Baltimore spent more on administrative salaries and wages and "contracted services for administration," whatever they are. (Apparently nobody, during all that testimony, bothered to ask.)

When it came to things that actually help "at-risk" students - like textbooks and "library and media" services, Baltimore County spent nearly $12 million while Baltimore, which had a higher per pupil expenditure, spent exactly $216,290.

It would seem logical to ask if Baltimore would have even had a budget crisis if it could have reduced its administrative costs down to the level of a Baltimore County or a Prince George's County (which also had a lower per-pupil expenditure than the city for that fiscal year). But apparently the itch to know these things doesn't afflict folks in these parts.

Ah, defenders of the North Avenue mismanagement crew will cry that Baltimore needs more money because it has the poorest and most at-risk students. Besides, and Kaplan pointed this out in his opinion, there's a new management team in place.

Indeed there is, but if the e-mails I keep getting are any indication, the same boo-boos that characterized the old management team persist.

And shouldn't the fact that Baltimore has the highest number of poor and at-risk students be precisely the reason we need to spend more money on them, not "administrative salaries and wages" or "contracted services for administration"?

(In the interest of fairness, perhaps I should point out that many employees at North Avenue were laid off after the budget crisis became obvious and that the figures for administrative costs for the 2003-2004 school year might be drastically reduced. But fairness also prompts the question: Why wait for a budget crisis?)

Kaplan didn't get into those issues in his opinion - and since he focused on whether the state had met its constitutional obligation, perhaps shouldn't have.

But wouldn't it be nice if somebody did?

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