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The suite life on North Ave.

In at least one Baltimore elementary school, the staff is engaged in an all-out war on rats because the rodents have such easy access through holes in the walls. In other city schools, classrooms are literally caving in from water damage. White dust falls from the decaying ceiling tiles, and in many places, extreme temperatures caused by failing heating and ventilation systems are the norm.

Yet even as so many teachers and students suffer through these disgraceful conditions — and with top city officials rightfully pleading for hundreds of millions of dollars more for school renovations — we now know the school's system's information technology chief authorized a $250,000 renovation of his department, including his own executive suite, in the city school system's North Avenue headquarters.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso called the decision to "a bad judgment call." That's an understatement. It was a monumentally bad call, not only because it reflects a certain indifference to the more pressing needs of the system but because it also raises serious questions about whether Mr. Alonso, the school board and others at North Avenue have sufficient control over how money is spent.

Here's the most charitable spin that can be put on what happened: Anyone who visits city school headquarters knows the 147-year-old building is no Ritz-Carlton. The renovations were part of $500,000 spent over the past year on upgrades like paint and carpet that were probably justified and spread across eight departments and 11 minor renovation projects. That expenditure pales compared to the $147 million spent during the same time period on capital projects at city schools.

But what Jerome Oberlton, the system's chief information officer, envisioned for his office was in a different category altogether. Apparently, only an inquiry from The Sun's Erica Green prevented the project from reaching full flower: A $41,000 custom-furniture order was canceled and replaced by furniture trucked in from the district's warehouse.

We sympathize (slightly) when Mr. Oberlton, a relative newcomer to the system, observes that his pre-renovation basement office repelled visitors, including job applicants. Some level of upgrade was likely justified. But wood floors, a glass-encased conference room, interactive white boards, a vaulted ceiling and entirely new heating and air conditioning system?

What apparently never computed for the IT expert was that city schools are under a microscope these days — much like government spending in general. Taxpayers are in no mood to hear stories of bureaucratic excess, whether it's the General Services Administration laughing it up lavishly in Las Vegas or theU.S. Secret Servicecarousing in Colombia.

MayorStephanie Rawlings-Blakehas been pushing for an increased bottle tax to raise $10 million a year and leverage $300 million for city school renovations. This incident makes taxpayers question whether the system can be trusted with that kind of money. You can bet that the beverage industry will be reminding City Council members of those North Avenue renovations in their ongoing war against the 5-cent container tax.

As they say in politics, the "optics" are not good.

But here's what really makes it troubling. So many top officials, Mr. Alonso and school board President Neil Duke included, say they had nothing to do with it. Apparently, a department head can make a major decision regarding this big an expenditure without much oversight beyond the school's chief financial officer and chief operating officer signing off on it.

Perhaps Mr. Alonso doesn't walk down to the basement level very often. That's understandable. But is North Avenue really so big a place that a quarter-million-dollar contract should not involve his or the board's approval at some point? Shouldn't the buck stop at the CEO's desk?

Granted, it's not easy working for Baltimore City Public Schools. The challenges facing the system are great and the resources to meet them not always adequate. Nor would we require each central office employee to work in miserable and unsafe conditions. That's not the way to attract the best or brightest to labor on behalf of city students.

But come on. If school administrators are truly dedicated to improving opportunities for city kids, they'd act more like good parents, making sure that their youngsters had enough before they ever spent money on themselves. That's surely not expecting too much of those entrusted with the city's future — and a $1.3 billion annual budget.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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