School oversight sought

Councilman wants city to sign off on emergency contracts

October 04, 2006|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

The chairman of the Baltimore City Council's education committee is calling for legislation to give city government more financial authority over the public school system, a concept backed by Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said greater oversight appears necessary in light of a Sun article Sunday detailing the system's extensive use of emergency contracts. He said he wants to see emergency contracts require the approval of the city's Board of Estimates.

"I hate to add another layer of bureaucracy, but it's important that we're not wasting money," Harris said. He said he will be contacting legislators from the city delegation to ask them to sponsor legislation.

Maryland school systems are only supposed to bypass the bidding process to issue emergency contracts when students' health and safety is jeopardized or their education would otherwise be disrupted. But the city school system has awarded at least 21 emergency contracts, worth more than $19 million, in the past six months, often for routine expenses, the Sun review found.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said the mayor, too, has concerns about the contracts. She said O'Malley, the Democratic nominee for governor, doesn't know enough specifics about the legislation Harris envisions to lend his support. However, she added, O'Malley has long wanted city government to have more control over Baltimore's schools.

"More accountability is always better than less," she said.

School board Chairman Brian D. Morris, an O'Malley supporter, differed with the mayor on this issue, arguing that city approval of emergency contracts isn't necessary. He said the school system already submits quarterly financial reports to the City Council, which must sign off on its annual budgets. And he reiterated comments he made last week, that the system is working "very diligently" to minimize the number of emergency contracts, which typically cost taxpayers more than contracts that go through the bidding process.

Until 1997, the school system was a branch of city government, and contracts had to be approved by the Board of Estimates. But that year, legislation created a city-state partnership to oversee the city schools, giving the state more authority in exchange for increased funding. Since then, the final word on contract approvals has rested with the school board, jointly appointed by the mayor and the governor.

In 2004, following the discovery that the system had a $58 million deficit, a state panel concluded that the partnership failed to establish clear lines of authority, and city and state officials failed to intervene.

Harris also said he wants school system officials to appear before the council's education committee to explain their use of emergency contracts. He said he will introduce a resolution mandating a hearing when the council next meets, on Oct. 16.

Morris said the system is always willing "to have an open dialogue."

William Reinhard, a spokesman for state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, said the city school system's problems with contracting "date back well before the city-state partnership." He said Grasmick supports a hearing on the recent use of emergency contracts, but she is not taking a position on whether the city should be granted more fiscal control.

Henry Fawell, a spokesman for Gov. Robert Ehrlich Jr., said the governor also would not comment on whether to revisit the balance of power under the city-state partnership. On the issue of emergency contracts, Fawell said, "It just reinforces the governor's belief that we need a new school board that devotes more resources to the teachers and the children and the classroom."

Though the members of the board were appointed jointly by Ehrlich and O'Malley, the governor has refused to grant O'Malley's request to reappoint three members whose terms expired this summer. The three members, including Morris, continue to serve while the dispute plays out.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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