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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


March 3, 2004

Political Survivor: Baltimore City Schools

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Everyone agrees Baltimore City schools is a system in crisis. The disagreement appears to concern how the problem gets resolved (if it ever really does).

The dollar amount affixed to the problem started out at $45 million, grew to $54 million in two days, and topped out at between $75-$100 million at the end of the week.

Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley offered to match an Abell Foundation grant with an $8 million city loan. He really had no choice. Politically, the residents of Baltimore understand that their own leaders has completely failed to fulfill their responsibility for providing leadership.

The mayor's argument that he did not have direct input into the city's Board of Education rings very hollow in light of his very hands-on approach to almost every other aspect of city governance, whether he had a direct role or not.

As it turned out, the combined $16 million bailout came nowhere near the total amount required to fix the problem. As badly as Mayor O' Malley wanted to avoid it, he had to seek financial support from Gov. Robert Ehrlich.

I would like to have been in the mayoral SUV on the ride down to Annapolis. It couldn't have been a fun ride, and I'm sure the city BOE took their share of rhetorical arrows from the mayor.

That gets us to the heart of this matter. The Baltimore City Board of Education lost sight of their fiduciary responsibility to the citizens of Baltimore. In the interests of improving public education, they forgot that they needed to measure cost and effectiveness.

Baltimore is probably NOT the only board of education that is facing serious fiscal challenges. It might not be the only board where the ball got dropped so completely. Whether it is or not, the fact is that this system is in such serious financial condition that immediate and comprehensive solutions are necessary.

On a side issue, I wonder whether or not the Maryland Department of Education should be holding some culpability. How did things get so bad without someone raising the issue? Why must we have a state agency with oversight authority if there is no oversight?

The fix proposed by the mayor involved a serious cash infusion from the state, coupled with the grant from Abell and the city loan, to get things back on track. Mr. O'Malley's first proposal retained the board of education as currently constituted, no outside involvement.

Governor Ehrlich rejected this suggestion immediately. The Baltimore Sun described the mayor, sitting all by himself on the sofa in the lobby outside the Governor's office suite, patiently waiting to be summoned into the inner sanctum.

While the mayor sat, the governor was working with city legislators (all Democrats); working with the budget secretary; and working with Secretary of Education Nancy Grasmick. After several hours of work, the governor announced the award of the state funding along with a restructure of the City's Board of Education. Coupled with the award was a commitment to create a new oversight entity, responsible for measuring fiscal and education policy.

At the hastily prepared news conference last Thursday night, the Governor unveiled his plan surrounded by all of the players, including the mayor. Everyone applauded the result, and the mayor commented that while he didn't get what he wanted, the outcome was a "great compromise."

Imagine my shock and surprise (oops, I sound like another Frederick political figure) when I heard Mayor O'Malley on the Baltimore news channels express frustration and anger over the governor's apparent "takeover" of city schools. Bullying was the charge, and according to the mayor, teachers will suffer from layoffs and furloughs. I think he also mentioned children getting shortchanged by the governor's plan.

What is this guy smoking? We're talking about a system that has squandered millions of tax dollars while failing to provide the most fundamental educational opportunities. What was he suggesting? Would it be better to just pour millions more into the existing model? Maybe we should just set printers up at BOE headquarters and let them print the money they'll need as they continue to fail.

Here's a great example of the scope of Baltimore's problem. The enrollment growth in Baltimore schools has been in decline since the 80's. In fact, the number of kids enrolled in Baltimore schools has almost been cut in half in the last three decades.

Guess how many schools the imminently qualified city BOE has closed in that time. NONE, not one!

Picture the Frederick County BOE in the same predicament. I simply cannot imagine the Board of County Commissioners being so out of step as to ignore declining enrollment while not addressing the cost of maintaining half empty buildings. Yet this is exactly what Mayor O'Malley wants us all to believe.

If all of this wasn't good enough, now the Maryland State Teachers Association is coming to Mayor O'Malley's defense. I received a letter from Pat Foerster, the MSTA president, indicating the lack of support for the governor's proposed changes.

Ms. Foerster is an aggressive and effective advocate for her members. The media approach taken by MSTA is to argue on behalf of students, while addressing the needs of teachers and support workers.

On this one, though, I couldn't disagree more. MSTA is deeply concerned about layoffs and furloughs. They want to fight the reforms mandated by Governor Ehrlich, mostly because of the threat of the hard choices advocated by fiscal expert Robert Neill, a former senator from Anne Arundel County.

When a public system is so poorly administered that it has to come to the state requesting a multi-million dollar bailout, NOTHING should be taken off the table. That includes tough choices about the number of employees, rate of pay, benefits, and other major budget drivers. Remember that in most large public sector organizations, employees account for between 80-85% of the operating budget.

This system has been run into the ground for years. The city's elected leaders might want to run from this, but logic and common sense won't allow that. Now that Governor Ehrlich has pledged a fiscal solution, all of us share in the responsibility to see that Baltimore school children receive a quality public education

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The General Assembly will be debating the governor's proposed legislation to bail out the Baltimore City school system over the next week to 10 days. Payroll checks to city school employees will bounce if issued at the end of March without a legislative decision.)



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