- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

BALTIMORE — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. told black lawmakers yesterday that he wants to help improve the city’s troubled public schools but is reluctant to drastically increase state spending on a system that was mismanaged last year to the brink of bankruptcy.

“The governor, as well as the parents and children of Baltimore public schools, deserve accountability,” said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver, who also attended the meeting with the state’s Legislative Black Caucus. “He told them he is not just going to throw money at a problem and expect it gets fixed.”

Sen. Verna Jones, Baltimore Democrat and vice chairman of the caucus, said the comments by Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, fail to recognize that the school system has improved its financial practices since last year. She also said the state should find the money for a district in which most children come from poor and disadvantaged households.

The Maryland State Board of Education also is not convinced the district has improved its financial-reporting practices and pressed officials yesterday to avoid bookkeeping problems like the ones last year that nearly collapsed the system.

In the summer, the school district was on the verge of bouncing teacher paychecks after creating a $58 million deficit over four years and having an immediate, $58 million cash-flow shortage.

Though the district has partially emerged from the financial fiasco, board members fear its school officials will again spend money they do not have.

Board members said one problem is the school district’s tendency to continue operating grant-funded programs, though it is no longer receiving the money. They also are concerned about the continuing shortage of qualified teachers, which is resulting in excess spending for substitutes and teacher training.

“There has been improvement, but there is still room for additional improvement,” said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Education. “Some of the information the state gets from the city still needs clarification.”

Bonnie S. Copeland, chief executive officer of Baltimore public schools, said some of the criticism from board members was unfounded and showed a lack of understanding about school funding.

“I am very adamant about how we manage our grants,” she said. “I thought they would applaud us for going after additional funds for our students. I was a little taken aback that they would look at that critically.”

The tension comes as a legal challenge working its way through the courts could force the state to give city schools an additional $30 million to $45 million this academic year.

The state has appealed Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan’s order in August that city schools must spend the additional money to replace budget cuts they made to avoid bankruptcy last year.

The ruling gave the school district the option of acquiring the extra money from the city or state or diverting other funds in its $964 million budget to classroom programs.

However, the state, the city and the schools objected. City and school officials said they could not come up with the money without state aid. The state said it already provides full funding, but that the school district mismanages the money.

The state is expected to file briefs next month in the Maryland Court of Appeals, and oral arguments would begin in March.

The schools laid off more than 1,000 employees and implemented a program to erase the $58 million deficit by the summer of 2006, city and school officials said.

“In terms of the situation they were in this time last year, there has been dramatic progress,” said Matt Gallagher, director of the Baltimore Citistat program, which tracks the city government’s performance. He also is a member of the committee that advises and monitors the school system’s fiscal reforms.

Patricia L. Welch, chairman of the city school board, said reforms introduced in the past 10 months have put Baltimore’s schools on sound financial footing.

“We think we are very stable at this point,” she said. “We believe our plan, that is monitored weekly, will prevent what happened before from happening again.”

Still, state officials fear school officials will squander any additional money without improving education.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for Maryland continues to operate a tip line to uncover criminal conduct by city school officials and employees.

A U.S. Attorney’s Office employee said he could not reveal how many tips have been received or whether any appear credible because the investigation was ongoing.

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