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September 10, 2004

Baltimore's - and Maryland's - Black Hole

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Dr. Stephen Hawking, preeminent physics scholar and best selling (albeit almost unreadable) author has conducted a careful study of one sciences greatest secrets.

Dr. Hawking is the world's unchallenged expert on the subject of black holes, voids into which fall anything that crosses their path. I actually tried to read one of his books, and I'm none too proud to admit that I got so lost I simply gave up.

I'm convinced that many people who carry around any of Hawking's works do so to impress their friends versus actually reading the books. I do not mean to denigrate Dr. Hawking's work. Quite the contrary. I am laying bare my ignorance of advanced physics and celebrating his immense intellect.

So much so that I am laying out his next great scientific challenge. Since he has so studiously and thoroughly exposed some of the universes greatest secrets, I'm hoping he can apply his great talents to the issue of Baltimore City School funding.

Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan has recently issued a ruling in a 10-year old case concerning adequacy of funding for Baltimore City Public Schools. In his decision, Judge Kaplan holds that the State of Maryland has "unlawfully" under-funded the Baltimore City schools. He indicated that focusing on management efficiencies is avoiding the state's constitutional obligation for adequate funding.

Maybe His Honor missed the recent "perp walk," with a former city schools executive being led away to face prison after pleading guilty to criminal misappropriation of funds. In fact, there have been several of these and all of them point to a failure to properly manage and account for fiscal resources.

This is exactly what the plaintiffs, including the American Civil Liberties Union, were seeking. In fact, if the ACLU had written the ruling, they couldn't have drafted a more favorable result.

Think back to last winter and the funding crisis created by a criminally mismanaged public education system. The governor was prepared to step in with a major financial bailout, but, at the last minute, the City Council scraped together the minimum amount needed to pay salaries and keep the thing afloat.

Now comes Judge Kaplan, mimicking the rhetoric of a public school administration so na´ve as to believe that if you spend more, you automatically get a better result. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it isn't just this one man's opinion.

Study upon study verifies that failure to address the fundamental and structural operation of the system means sending good money after bad. This important point has not been lost on the State Board of Education and State Superintendent Nancy Grasmick.

The State Board of Education has decided to appeal Judge Kaplan's ruling to the Court of Special Appeals. The president of the State Board, Edward Root of Cumberland, suggested that it is impossible to separate financial reform from managerial reform.

Dr. Bonnie Copeland, the superintendent of the Baltimore City school system, feels that the reforms and staff changes she has made are addressing the fundamental problems. President Root counters that the state board has numerous examples of egregious behavior by school system managers, even after Dr. Copeland's much ballyhooed reforms.

Superintendent Grasmick and the State Board of Education need to hold out for more than Judge Kaplan has given them. Judge Kaplan is simply wrong, and it does not serve the best interests of all Marylanders to allow more money to be wasted on the Baltimore City school system without more independent oversight into how dollars are spent and how decisions get made there.

Besides, Judge Kaplan cannot order the General Assembly to provide more aid to the Baltimore City Schools. That would be a violation of the separation of powers.

Judge Kaplan may have been swayed by the ACLU arguments, but most rational-thinking Marylanders are not. I hesitate to speak about the Mayor of Baltimore, Martin O'Malley in the same paragraph where I refer to rational-thinking Marylanders, but the good mayor also felt compelled to weigh in.

Mayor O'Malley suggests that state officials refuse to take responsibility for the shortcomings of city schools, and that they also refuse to accept responsibility for short changing the schools in the budget. Hey mayor, guess what? The person who is supposed to be responsible is YOU!

The Ehrlich Administration does not believe that a rational nexus exists between how much you spend and whether or not there is measurable improvement. In fact, that very style of flawed logic is responsible for the theft, misappropriation, and generally lackadaisical management of the Baltimore school system to date.

So the mayor, the city schools superintendent, the ACLU, and Judge Kaplan are convinced that the state should increase funding to the system and that sufficient local controls exist to protect that increased investment.

The State Board of Education, the state superintendent, and a number of others feel that the problems encountered last year are essentially unresolved, and that merely spending more money does not solve the problem.

So maybe Dr. Hawking can examine the twisted relationships and dynamics of this problem and propose a solution. Rest assured his analysis would take into account the actions (or inactions) of the Baltimore school management leading up to last year's crisis.

Pouring in more precious state resources will not guarantee a better education for any single child. The swirling vortex will continue to devour every dollar, and Baltimore schools will struggle to meet minimum standards.

Our best hope is that the Court of Special Appeals will not tolerate the status quo, and vacate Judge Kaplan's decision. Then maybe we can get to the real work of re-building a public education system to meet the needs of Baltimore's children.

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