City schools cling to habit of budgeting ineptitude

April 10, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Admittedly, this isn't simple 'rithmetic. To divide $151,971 (the amount one department was allotted for salaries) by 120 (its number of employees) involves some acquaintance with long division. And there's a certain theoretical, even existentialist, aspect to dividing another program's $6.2 million in salaries by its number of employees: 0.

But you don't have to do the math to see the problem with those and other entries in the breathtakingly inept budget prepared by the Baltimore City public school system's administrators - and somehow unanimously approved by the school board. Just read Sun reporter Sara Neufeld's accounts, in yesterday's and today's papers, detailing a $1.2 billion budget for the next academic year that is filled with one bizarre discrepancy after another. (Pity the employees who don't appear to be paid anything at all; envy the ones whose salaries would - at least on paper - compute to more than a half-million dollars.)

Reading doesn't seem to be any more of a strength than 'rithmetic over at school system headquarters. You have to hope the schools' leadership is composed of master writers - it would be too depressing to imagine they've struck out on all three of the R's.

Did anyone on North Avenue read, for example, the clearheaded report issued in 2003 by a blue-ribbon panel of business and educational leaders, who had been asked to rescue the school system from fiscal chaos? To refresh your memory: The school system was sinking into what ultimately would become a $58 million deficit, it was laying off hundreds of staff that it could no longer afford to pay, and its top administrators were resigning right and left.

City and school officials sent an SOS to two business groups, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Presidents' Roundtable, and, after months of review, the groups offered some basic, accounting-for-dummies advice: Start working on the budget earlier, stick to it, closely track staffing, hold managers accountable for their spending, pay bills on time, etc. It really was that simple - "business management 101," as GBC President Donald C. Fry called it at the time.

And yet now, four years later, the school system has presented a budget that was late, filled with staffing and salary discrepancies and requiring some fairly mind-twisting explanations. Those 187 guidance counselors referred to at the start of the document but never seen again? Oh, they're paid under the "general instruction" category. That $18 million in new initiatives? Actually, they'll cost $31 million. Those phantom employees whose salaries total $6.2 million? They must be the 73 instructional support teachers who, on another page, appear not to be getting paid at all.

You can imagine the feelings of deja vu all over again that must have washed over Fry as he read Neufeld's story yesterday.

"It's unsettling, to say the least," Fry said. "I think the part that is disturbing is that four years after we made many recommendations regarding fiscal management, it seems like some of the same problems all over again. We're falling back into the culture of complacency again."

That was how Fry and his fellow committee members characterized the problem four years ago, and even then, they were quoting an earlier study, from 1992, that declared that the "culture of complacency that pervades the ... public schools must be broken."

How is this possible? The people running the Baltimore school system seem constantly in flux - it's been through multiple CEOs and CFOs in recent years - and yet the same problems arise year after year. The school system manages to be both unstable and consistent. It's quite a trick, or maybe they've discovered a new law of nature - call it chaotic inertia, or static disorder.

It was also deja vu all over again in Annapolis yesterday, where, on the last day of the General Assembly session, some lawmakers called a meeting to question interim school system CEO Charlene Cooper Boston and school board Chairman Brian D. Morris. It was a near-mirror of hearings held during the session four years ago, when then-CEO Carmen V. Russo was being called on the carpet, and denunciations were made, such as this one from the then-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee: "This kind of shoddy budgeting is disgraceful and inexcusable."

Rest in peace, Del. Howard P. Rawlings, if you can after seeing this year's version of shoddy budgeting.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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