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Inquiry leads to full correction page in city schools budget

It started with a simple question on Tuesday, May 14: Why is the line item for "Summer Learning" in the Baltimore City school system's budget blank? The Sun had published several stories about the program and its successes over the years, so to see that it had no number attached naturally piqued our interest.

The question was first posed to city school officials the day the budget was scheduled to be voted on, and repeatedly in writing after that. The vote was deferred until May 20, and as of today, the question has not been answered.

But, it appears the district was not only scrambling to address the error The Sun had found, but several others, making several changes just days before the budget was to come before the city's school board for a final vote.

And tonight, attached to the budget will be a full page of corrections. Page 97. 

According to the "Revision Page," the district made several changes on May 15 and 16 to the budget, which it originally published on May 9.

The first change, according to the revision page: "Row incorrectly labeled 'Low incidence' corrected to 'Extended learning,' which includes summer school programming."

The other "revisions" included several line items that did not accurately reflect expenditures or disbursements, or simply weren't labeled accurately. According to the error page, none of the corrections changed total expenditure amounts.

For those who may question why this is important, let's recall 2007 when The Sun published a story about the city school board passing an error-riddled budget. See full story by clicking here.

Some excerpts included:

  • The Baltimore school board has approved a $1.2 billion budget for the next academic year that is filled with errors and tens of millions of dollars of discrepancies, a Sun review has found. In dozens of cases, the amounts budgeted for salaries do not match with the number of people who are supposed to be paid. One line item shows $6.2 million in salary money to pay zero employees. 
  •  If the figures listed in the budget were correct, at least 460 employees would earn more than $200,000 a year on average, while more than 2,000 employees would earn less than $9,000 a year. One person would earn $1.4 million, another would earn $1.9 million and 13 would earn more than $510,000 each.
  • Different sections of the same document provide drastically different figures. A summary page lists 7,011 employees, including teachers and principals, assigned to work under the school system's chief academic officer. Elsewhere in the document, the number of employees exceeds 10,000.
  •  School system officials attributed many of the problems to a new budget format. They said they reformatted the document this year in attempt to make it more transparent and user-friendly, and to reflect a recent reorganization of administrative offices. As a result, they said, some numbers were converted inaccurately. In other cases, parts of the budget reflect the new management structure and parts do not.
  • In next year's budget, five departments all have the same budget for grant-funded salaries -- $2,654,711 -- but the number of employees to be paid with that money ranges from 26 to 70. Hamlett called the salary figure a "place-holder." 

This is the first year since then that the district has made an actual full budget book public.

And as of last week, school board members also questioned things like why permanent salary numbers didn't match the actual number of employees and the repercussions that overstating enrollment numbers may have.

Some excerpts from another 2007 story on enrollment projections :

  •  The budget approved by the Baltimore school board last month overstated the school system's enrollment for the current academic year by 1,000 students, officials acknowledged last night.
  •  A new version of the budget, presented to the public this week, says there are 82,381 children attending city schools this year. The version that the school board approved said there are 83,312. 
  • It was a mistake that could have had multimillion-dollar implications for the system, which receives government funds based on the number of students it serves. If officials miscalculated the city's enrollment by 1,000 students, at least $10 million would be at stake.

The district's budget process is notably different than other jurisdictions--a longstanding complaint--which in the past, has been attributed to the fact that it relies more heavily on state funding, which leaves things in flux for longer than other districts.

The state's budget was passed by the Senate on March 20, and passed on April 5.

Among the most notable differences, aside from the timeline, is that it is far less detailed at only 97 pages with most departments noting a handful of expenditures in umbrella categories.

Compare that to Baltimore County's budget, which is 294 pages, and includes everything from how much textbooks cost to set asides for settling employee disputes.

It should be noted that under the city's decentralization model, every school has its own budget.

And as a result, the accountability at the central level is different. For instance, one could not determine from the budget how many teachers the district is cutting or adding, or what classroom sizes look like.

When it comes to public debate, Baltimore city has a completely different way of doing things.

First, the district holds public dialogues on the budget before it is presented. For instance, the district held community events in January to get a sense of what it should prioritize.

And while the responses are said to guide the budgeting process, it seems that doesn't always have a strong impact when the accounting is done months later.

If you take a look at  this summary report of the budget dialogues held in January, the highest number of participants wanted to increase the base funding for all students, or decrease funding for students with certain characteristics (such as special ed) in order to increase per-pupil funding overall.

In this year's proposed budget, the district proposed to decrease the base funding for all students and either cut or maintain the current funding for certain groups of students.

Similarly, the hearings designed for the public to comment on the proposed budget took place before the full budget was made public (the district did make a number of Powerpoint presentations--the first of which did not even include what per-pupil expenditures would be next year). 

The poorly attended public hearings were held on April 30 and May 7. The full budget book was made public on May 9.

To read the most recently revised budget book, published May 16, click here.

City school officials still have not responded to The Sun's May 15 inquiry about the summer school budget line error.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

 

 

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