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Driving Mr. Alonso

After a steep decline in 2008, the cost of overtime pay for city school employees is rising again, and that's cause for serious concern. But school officials are going to have an even harder time coping with the problem if they also have to fight the perception that city schools CEO Andrés Alonso is part of it.

Last year, the police sergeant whose duties include providing security for Mr. Alonso as well as driving him to appointments around town more than doubled his base salary in overtime pay. That's an appearance of extravagance the city can't afford.

At a time when everybody else is being asked to make sacrifices, Mr. Alonso ought occasionally to get behind the wheel himself for routine trips that don't require police protection or involve late-night meetings. There are many reasons for citizens to be concerned about rising school overtime costs, but whether the CEO's chauffeur is grossly overpaid shouldn't be one of them.

The paycheck being collected by Mr. Alonso's driver, 32-year veteran School Police Sgt. Ralph Askins, isn't going to bankrupt the system. Mr. Askins collected $78,000 in overtime last year in addition to $76,819 in wages, and there's no reason to believe he didn't earn every penny of it. It's also worth noting that Mr. Alonso is by no means the first city schools CEO to be afforded a driver.

But it makes it harder to trust that Mr. Alonso is doing a good job managing the school system's finances if he can't exert better control over the schedule of a salaried employee whose overtime pay is a direct result of the decisions he makes.

Mr. Askins is by all accounts an experienced, trusted employee whom the schools CEO has come to rely on for his personal safety when he's on the road. He's also someone Mr. Alonso can count on to exercise discretion about conversations and phone calls he may overhear while driving his boss from place to place.

Nor is there any doubt that Mr. Alonso works a busy, often grueling schedule, and that the convenience of having a driver on call whenever he needs one allows him to maximize the number of things he can get done in a day.

All of that is worth something, but it doesn't outweigh the potential damage if it causes people to question Mr. Alonso's handling of the much larger problem of rising overtime costs for school system employees who aren't among his closest associates. The schools CEO obviously takes pride in the job he is doing to improve Baltimore's schools, but he can't afford to ignore the public's perception of how he chooses to allocate limited resources.

Since 2009, the school system has spent some $14 million in overtime for employees, most off which went to members of the school police and to temporary employees who were hired to fill gaps left when Mr. Alonso began shrinking his central office staff in order to devote more resources to individual schools. Last year the school system paid $3.4 million in overtime to nearly 1,600 employees at a time when school budgets were being cut because of rising personnel costs

The city school system is different from those in the suburbs in that it has its own police force to protect its buildings and students; elsewhere, regular officers are assigned to those tasks. Whether that makes financial sense is a question Mr. Alonso and the school board may have to consider at some point, but the reality is that someone needs to perform that function, and given the nature of the job — there are after-school and evening sports or social events virtually every day of the week that need security — it's bound to generate overtime.

Mr. Alonso was also right to reduce the size of the central office staff so he could provide more money for school principals to use in the classroom. That left some gaps at headquarters that had to be filled by temp workers. But overall the system has cut about 1,300 full-time employees from the central office staff since 2008, and that represents progress.

The downside, however, is that even though overtime costs — after peaking at $4.6 million in 2008 —initially went down as a result of the reorganization, they have been steadily creeping back up since their low of $2.7 million in 2009.

That's the real problem Mr. Alonso needs to address, and it shouldn't be confused with the relatively minuscule proportion of overtime costs represented by his driver's compensation. Mr. Alonso may not be able to entirely control the perception of a chauffeur as an unjustified perk, but he could do a lot to steer the conversation back where it belongs simply by choosing to handle a few more of the driving chores himself.

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