Out to lunch

Our view: Questionable credit card expenditures by top school system administrators are a distraction from the city's school reform effort that Baltimore can ill afford

August 27, 2012

At a time when Baltimore City agencies are under scrutiny regarding the wise use of taxpayer dollars, you'd think top school administrators would think twice before racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable expenses on their department-issued credit cards. But apparently some educators still don't get it. The fact that they could even contemplate lavishing large sums on meals, hotels and out-of-town trips suggests just how out of touch they must seem to ordinary city residents.

As The Sun's Erica Green reported on Sunday, central office staffers spent roughly half a million dollars over the last year and a half on staff perks that included a $7,300 office retreat at a downtown hotel, $300-per-night hotel rooms and $1,000 dinners at exclusive members-only clubs. Yet city schools CEO Andrés Alonso claimed the vast majority of such expenses were perfectly legitimate under a new procurement card program he instituted in 2011 and justified them as a routine "cost of doing business" for a system that is trying to promote itself as a national model for school reform.

But the public is entitled to ask what, if anything, such spending has to do with the school system's main job of improving the quality of classroom instruction through such things as renovating dilapidated buildings, beefing up the curriculum and holding teachers and principals accountable for gains in student achievement. Compared to those necessities, everything else is a luxury, especially given the fact that the credit card program has been operating with virtually no controls or oversight since it began, and several of the expenditures uncovered in The Sun's report appear to have violated the department's own rules for the use of such cards.

The items purchased on the department's credit cards represent a grab bag of expenses, some of which may have been legitimate while others were clearly out of bounds. Obviously, Mr. Alonso can't be held responsible for every lapse in judgment by his subordinates, and we don't presume to be in a position to second-guess every expenditure his department makes. For us, the bottom line is whether the schools advance as a result. In this case, we fear the matter of the system's questionable spending will become a distraction that detracts from that overall effort.

That's because the school system doesn't operate in a vacuum. It's part of a complex social, political and economic landscape that educators must constantly be aware of if their policies are to succeed. It's in that context that one must ask whether the fancy dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse or the expensive caterer for a staff development meeting is really necessary or appropriate in an era when everyone knows the city is struggling to make ends meet.

Even if the economy were booming, which it is not, school officials would be wise to embrace an ethos of frugality that befits an institution that operates on the public's dime. That means picking the affordable hotel over the Ritz, the Denny's burger and fries over the New York strip steak at the Prime Rib.

Make no mistake, we want to see Mr. Alonso succeed in his reform program. We want to see principals held accountable for student test scores, teachers held accountable for gains in student achievement and educators who excel in the classroom rewarded with compensation commensurate with their gifts. But the questionable spending by school administrators shows poor judgment on the part of some of the very people who are supposed to make those things happen. It made no sense, for example, to give people credit cards with little oversight or accountability even though there was nothing seriously wrong with the previous system.

A wise policy might have anticipated such problems and made provisions for keeping matters from getting out of hand. It was only a few months ago that similar Sun investigations uncovered a luxury office redesign for the school system's information technology director and excessively generous overtime paid to Mr. Alonso's personal chauffeur. But little seems to have been learned from those episodes.

Two years ago, when the schools were seeing rapid gains in test scores, and attendance and graduation rates were rising, perhaps such lapses might have been easier to overlook. But the questionable spending is occurring at the same time test scores are flat or declining. It's an embarrassment and a distraction. Baltimore can and must do better than this, and school officials who refuse to recognize that reality are hurting not just their own cause but also that of the children they are trying to help.

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