Schools budget full of errors

In city document, funds for salaries don't match number of people being paid

Sun Exclusive

April 09, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN REPORTER

The Baltimore school board has approved a $1.2 billion budget for the next academic year that is filled with errors and tens of millions of dollars of discrepancies, a Sun review has found.

In dozens of cases, the amounts budgeted for salaries do not match with the number of people who are supposed to be paid. One line item shows $6.2 million in salary money to pay zero employees.

The problems surface just months after the school system declared itself fiscally healthy after a major financial collapse and as the state infuses hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the city's chronically underfunded schools.

The school board chairman and the head of the board's finance committee acknowledged that no one had noticed the many discrepancies before the board unanimously approved the budget March 27, with one member absent.

Among The Sun's findings:

If the figures listed in the budget were correct, at least 460 employees would earn more than $200,000 a year on average, while more than 2,000 employees would earn less than $9,000 a year. One person would earn $1.4 million, another would earn $1.9 million and 13 would earn more than $510,000 each.

Different sections of the same document provide drastically different figures. A summary page lists 7,011 employees, including teachers and principals, assigned to work under the school system's chief academic officer. Elsewhere in the document, the number of employees exceeds 10,000.

While the budget is supposed to include an extra $1.5 million to decrease class sizes in selected elementary schools, it would effectively increase class sizes by reducing the number of staff assigned to elementary schools citywide by 204 positions.

Presented with a list of the findings, city education advocates expressed outrage.

"Second perhaps only to ensuring that there's a good CEO, making sure that the right spending is taking place is the most important function that any school board has," said Matthew Joseph, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth. "It's hard to believe that the city school board can carry out that function properly if the information they have is contained in that budget document."

School system officials attributed many of the problems to a new budget format. They said they reformatted the document this year in attempt to make it more transparent and user-friendly, and to reflect a recent reorganization of administrative offices. As a result, they said, some numbers were converted inaccurately. In other cases, parts of the budget reflect the new management structure and parts do not.

"If you can blame us for anything, it's blaming us for trying to improve the process at a pace that is probably faster than what is reasonable," the board's chairman, Brian D. Morris, said in a meeting last week where three board members and five top administrators told a reporter that the budget discrepancies were not newsworthy. "That altruistic spirit to try to be transparent got us in a little bit of trouble."

Officials said that the figure of 7,011 employees working for the chief academic officer doesn't include special- education employees now in that jurisdiction but that the 10,000 employees outlined later in the book does.

Similarly, they insisted that they did not forget to budget for 187 guidance counselors whose positions are listed in a table at the beginning of the book but never show up again in the detailed sections. They said guidance counselors now fall under the "general instruction" category.

But they could not explain why The Sun found similar problems in the budget for the current academic year. That budget passed muster last spring with the City Council and Gov. Martin O'Malley, who was mayor at the time.

Officials pledged to fix all the figures before publishing a final version of the adopted 2007-2008 budget this week and forwarding it to the council and Mayor Sheila Dixon for approval.

A budget is a detailed outline of an organization's projected income and expenditures for the coming fiscal year. While the city school system's budgets include financial comparisons from the previous two years, the official sources to track how money is spent are year-end financial statements and annual independent audits.

Board members said that based on those documents, they are confident that the system is at last in good financial order after years of operating with a deficit, which ballooned to $58 million in the 2003-2004 school year and required a city government bailout.

"From everything that the board knows, no money has been misspent," said Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, chairman of the board's finance committee. He said the discrepancies in the budget are "presentation issues that are in the process of being straightened out." He conceded that "they should have been straightened out sooner."

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