Pay attention

April 10, 2007

Less than a year after the Baltimore school system retired a crippling $58 million deficit that was in part the result of faulty accounting, school officials are trying to explain why dollars and personnel don't always add up in the projected budget for the next school year. The errors seem to be caused more by lax attention to detail than dangerous or surreptitious budgeting. But they raise valid questions about how diligently the school board and staff are minding the budget.

Even if the errors turn out to be relatively insignificant, a system that's still in recovery from a fiscal meltdown needs to make sure that its budget processes and presentations are beyond reproach.

An investigation by The Sun's Sara Neufeld found a number of discrepancies in the $1.2 billion budget that the school board approved just two weeks ago. The analysis found suggestions of significant salary overpayments, such as 13 employees who would earn more than $500,000 and two people who would earn more than $1 million. It also found different numbers on different pages for total employees working in one department and possible personnel reductions in areas that could thwart promising program initiatives.

Such discrepancies are troubling for a school system that is trying to convince the public that it can be fiscally responsible while raising academic achievement. Just last year, the system repaid a $42 million loan from the city that helped eliminate that multiyear deficit.

School board members and other officials insist the basic broad outlines of the budget that passed last month - as contained in a companion budget summary document that includes overall dollars and staff, as well as money and personnel for specific program initiatives - are sound and accurate. They also say internal and external audits have not uncovered any problems.

But perception can become reality. Even small mistakes or unexplained discrepancies can look suspicious and undermine the system's credibility. School officials promise that the errors will be fixed as soon as possible - certainly before the document is reviewed by the City Council.

They also need to assure the public that sloppy inconsistencies won't be tolerated. As the system seeks to rebuild trust, paying attention to details is essential.

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