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News Opinion Editorial

Seeing red over city schools budget [Editorial]

City school officials facing a $31 million budget shortfall next year have proposed dipping into the system's rainy day fund to close the gap. But that's not what those dollars are supposed to be for. The whole point of setting aside emergency funds is to cushion the impact of major unanticipated disruptions, from natural disasters to sudden economic crises. They're not a backstop for the kind of foreseeable, year-to-year budgetary ups and downs that ought to be part of the routine planning process, and using them that way would set a terrible precedent for the future.

School officials attribute the deficit to a slowdown in revenue as federal and private foundation grants begin to expire, the system takes on new financial commitments related to its "pay for performance" contract with city teachers and the number of new students enrolling in the school system tapers off. The only one of those that could possibly count as "unexpected" would be the reduction in the growth rate of the student body, and there we're talking about a difference between the system growing by 400 students last year and 84 this year, or 0.4 percent of the system's nearly 85,000 students.

Administrators have come up with about $4 million in cuts they can make but say they may need to draw the remaining $27 million to close the gap from the system's rainy day fund. There's currently between $50 million and $60 million in that account designated for unplanned expenses.

The money may be there, but that's not a reason to spend it, especially for an "unplanned expense" that should have been planned for. How is it that the board is just now finding out about an imbalance between revenues and expenses? Why wasn't it recognized and dealt with long ago?

The projected $31 million deficit still represents only a tiny fraction of the school system's $1.2 billion budget. Nobody is going to argue that a budget gap totaling tens of millions of dollars isn't a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things it still represents only about 2.6 percent of the school department's overall spending plan, and it strains credulity to think officials can't make up the difference through sensible, targeted trims that don't affect the quality of classroom instruction. The private sector has to juggle such adjustments all the time without cutting into core operations, as have all manner of state and local government agencies in recent years.

The greatest danger of raiding the school system's piggy bank when there's a gap between revenues and expenditures is that it will become a habit that's harder to break with every passing year. Instead of accepting the discipline required to plan ahead carefully, school officials could easily get used to relying on a pot of "free money" in the rainy day fund to correct errors in their calculations and bail themselves out of trouble when things go awry. And inevitably, when a real disaster finally does strike, there won't be enough money in the kitty to put things right because it all will have been frittered away as a result of poor planning in the past.

The deficit should be a heads-up for incoming schools CEO Gregory Thornton that he is going to need to keep a close eye on the school system's finances. It's obviously not an ideal situation when a new schools chief has to walk in on a financial mess not of his own creation, but surely he must have been aware that problems with fiscal management in the Baltimore schools — including questionable overtime, vacation and sick leave payments; the failure to collect millions in unpaid bills; double-dipping when part-time workers also acted as vendors; and $500,000 in credit card charges by top officials for pricey meals and luxury hotels — are not exactly uncommon.

If straightening out the system's money problems wasn't already one of Mr. Thornton's top priorities, it had better be now. He needs to instill sufficient fiscal discipline in the system to make sure it isn't in a position to so much as debate dipping into the rainy day fund again.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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