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After city loan to schools, stepped-up involvement

Sun Staff

Since Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley fashioned a financial bailout of city schools last month, he has asserted a measure of involvement in North Avenue unseen since City Hall gave up control over education seven years ago.

Today the mayor travels to Chicago to learn from Mayor Richard M. Daley -- who in 1995 seized sole authority over the third-largest urban school system, which was once considered one of the nation's worst.

"What I hope to learn from Daley is: What are some of the things he was able to accomplish right off the bat?" O'Malley said. "How do we improve the grounds over the next six months? How do you improve windows? We want to get some drinking fountains turned back on."

The much larger Chicago school system does not offer a perfect picture of school reform. Daley faces his own budget crunch, and his policy of ending social promotions of students is under fierce criticism by education experts. But even Daley's critics say that since he took over, test scores have risen and school buildings and construction have flourished.

O'Malley is most intent on learning about where to find bureaucratic waste. Doing so, he said, will help schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland avoid extensive layoffs and steer savings into instruction.

He and Copeland have met with Daley's former schools chief, Paul Vallas, who now runs Philadelphia's school system. And O'Malley and Copeland have been promoting a closer partnership between City Hall and North Avenue.

"The school system, with your help, is going to be better, and it is going to be stronger, both academically and fiscally," Copeland said at an event this week at which O'Malley announced that officials had identified up to 84 obsolete school vehicles that could be sold off.

The minor managerial move demonstrates O'Malley's talent for putting positive spin on a system in need of a better image.

"He brings visibility and a bully pulpit," said Carlton G. Epps Sr., the school system's chief operating officer.

O'Malley has also deployed his administration's senior members into all corners of the school operations in an effort to eliminate waste. He is also building partnerships with union and business leaders to address cosmetic and systemic shortcomings at city schools.

Although state law since 1997 has dictated that a city-state partnership governs city schools, O'Malley is filling what many have said is a political accountability gap. The mayor and the governor jointly appoint a nine-member school board.

O'Malley's heightened concern signifies a political transformation. He won office in 1999 focused mainly on cutting crime. His school involvement, as education expert James Cibulka wrote in a 2001 University of Maryland study, was "confined to sharing credit for the modest improvements in student achievement."

O'Malley, who boasted of higher test scores during his campaign last year in the Democratic primary, said that the city-state partnership left him little room for influence but that he wishes he had done more.

"In terms of actually helping to improve the business and the financial operations of the school system and the facilities, we could have been a lot more helpful over the last few years," O'Malley said in an interview. "This whole crisis has brought about a much closer working relationship between the city and the school system."

Shortly after September's primary, city schools became embroiled in a fiscal crisis, as a $58 million school deficit threatened to lead the state to place the system in a state-controlled receivership. The move threatened local say over school policies, which many city leaders opposed.

That's when the mayor, with the City Council's backing, dipped into the city's reserves to lend $42 million to the schools last month and told voters to hold him accountable.

Since then, O'Malley has wasted little time in devising a strategy for helping the schools. In addition to reducing the schools' fleet, O'Malley and his administration:

  • Started what are planned to be weekly Monday morning meetings of his senior staff, and Copeland, Epps, schools' Chief Financial Officer Rose Piedmont and other school officials.
  • Published a point-by-point plan that identifies which school-system officials are responsible for implementing management policies suggested this year by the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business group, and by what date results are expected.
  • Met Monday with building-trades union leaders to get them to volunteer their services and supplies to patch up crumbling school facilities. Also on Monday, O'Malley sat down with representatives from the school system's three unions to help alleviate labor tensions stemming from the school board's failure to sign a contract with the City Union of Baltimore and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Union leaders will meet with city and schools officials every two weeks. Late last year, O'Malley sent Thomas Kim, one of his analysts from the CitiStat department, to work for Copeland to start for the schools a similar system that uses statistics to consistently track, measure and correct the performance of agencies and their employees. CitiStat director Matthew Gallagher and O'Malley's chief information officer, Elliot Schlanger, are piecing together statistics about the system's infrastructure to map square footage of buildings and their grounds to determine whether custodial contracts are priced appropriately. They are also examining details on overtime pay, absenteeism, and contracts related to bus transportation, food service and energy efficiency in buildings. Meetings on their CitiStat findings will be held every two weeks, Gallagher said. Much of that information will help form recommendations that the five-member financial operations committee -- consisting of Gallagher, city finance director Peggy Watson, school board member Ralph S. Tyler, a state education official and a City Council representative -- will submit to Copeland and the board by the end of next month. Union leaders in the city have often been critical of CitiStat, saying it gives O'Malley numbers to justify work force reductions and increases in the cost of health care, both of which may be sought with schools unions. But the Baltimore Teachers Union's labor negotiator, Loretta Johnson, said she was confident O'Malley had the school system's best interest at heart. "He didn't have to do this," Johnson said. "He could have hid behind state law. If he makes sure we stay financially solvent and that we're spending our money properly, I think the school system will turn around."
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