Schools to air budget issues

Meeting next week planned after third-party review

April 11, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,[Sun reporter]

The Baltimore school board will hold a public meeting next week to address issues raised in a Sun article that found budgets for the current and upcoming academic years riddled with errors.

Officials announced last night that they will have an "independent third party" review next school year's budget before the meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. April 19 at school system headquarters, but they declined to say who that party is.

The board held an emergency meeting yesterday morning to discuss the budget. Advance notice of the meeting was not posted on the system's Web site.

Spokeswoman Edie House said meeting notices were posted "in their normal posting places" in the lobby at system headquarters and on a door upstairs in the school board office, located in an area of the building that the public cannot access without an appointment.

House said she was not at the meeting and so could not say what happened.

For the past year, The Sun has repeatedly requested that the system post online notices of its emergency meetings or e-mail the notices to the media, as surrounding school districts routinely do.

In October, officials agreed to post agendas and relevant documents for its regularly scheduled meetings on a new Web site. But they have continued announcing emergency meetings by taping paper notices inside system headquarters - a practice that is legally permissible, but requires any member of the public who wishes to track the meetings to go to the building daily.

Earlier this week, The Sun reported that the system's $1.2 billion budget for next school year contains tens of millions of dollars of discrepancies, including dozens of cases where salary line items don't match the number of employees being paid.

If the figures in next year's 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. In one case, $6.2 million in salary money appears to be paying no one, but system officials said the money will, in fact, pay the salaries of 73 instructional support teachers who appear on other pages to be not getting paid at all.

The system released a statement last night saying that it is "of the highest priority ... that the public has complete confidence in the budget and budget process."

The statement read in part: "Recent news reports describing issues in the 2008 ... budget suggest inconsistencies that are substantive and far ranging. They are not! Although, regrettably, the budget has created some questions, the number of positions and dollars in the budget added up correctly. The Board knew the revenues available and the staff and programs to be funded. The budget is sound and there is no evidence of over-budgeting or bottom-line errors."

In response to the article Monday, some elected officials called for sanctions against the system, ranging from a state takeover to a freeze on city funds to a legislative audit to a new governance structure.

But Mayor Sheila Dixon stood by the school board yesterday, saying that a "glitch" occurred as a result of the system adopting a new format for its budget this year. She did not explain why the budget for the current year, which was approved by the mayor and City Council when she was council president, contains similar problems.

"To be honest with you," Dixon said, "as I get additional information and looking at it, I'm confident that what we've read in The Sun paper, probably in most cases, is not totally correct."

The questions about the budgets surfaced months after the system declared itself fiscally healthy, following a financial crisis, in which it accumulated a $58 million deficit and had to accept a city bailout.

The system's statement last night said the system has "eliminated all deficits, lived within its means and made gains in student achievement." It said the system's financial management has "passed two outside independent audits in the last year and earned two national awards for financial reporting."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Sumathi Reddy contributed to this article.

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