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Annapolis respects Neall on difficult fiscal matters

Sun Staff

If there was any consolation in Annapolis about former Sen. Robert R. Neall's decision yesterday to resign his post with the Baltimore school system, it was that he has impulsively tried such an action before - and returned to his work.

Neall, often credited with having one of the state's top fiscal minds, took similar steps two years ago while in the Maryland Senate. Neall begged Senate leaders to remove him from the Budget and Taxation Committee because he believed the state was spending beyond its means and that his calls for restraint were being ignored.

In the end, Senate leaders persuaded him to stay.

"He's extremely bright and talented, and he has flashes of a temper to match," said former Sen. Michael J. Collins. "For the sake of the schoolchildren of Baltimore and the state, I hope he reconsiders."

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. declined to classify Neall's action as a resignation, saying last night that his status is "in limbo in the very short term."

Still, Neall left a trail of blank stares and heads shaking in disbelief yesterday as lawmakers questioned whether his departure would prevent the city's beleaguered school system from securing needed state aid. In Annapolis - from the governor's office to both legislative chambers - Neall represented a credible voice for the school system, one that assured accountability over future spending.

"If he signals a lack of confidence in the school system, the governor and the General Assembly probably will reflect the same feelings," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "Bobby Neall is a known commodity. We respect him. We hold him in high esteem."

Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairwoman of the Baltimore House delegation, said she has been pushing to have more accounting experts involved on the school board and on an investigative panel established by the state superintendent. She said she believes Neall is the kind of person the school system has long needed, not the kind of person who should be chased away.

"My gut feeling is, there is resistance to accepting expert advice from fiscal accounting," Marriott said. "What we need is a person who has [Neall's] expertise. My question is, where was his recommendation rejected? By the CEO? By the board?"

The city schools' chief executive, Bonnie S. Copeland, first tapped Neall in the fall after she took control of the system's operations. She handed her old friend the school system's books, labor agreements and personnel data in hopes that he would help solve a deficit that had spiraled out of control.

Neall, a former Anne Arundel County executive, state senator and businessman, essentially became a guarantor for the school system on a $42 million state loan intended to avert layoffs of hundreds of teachers.

Last night, the governor said the status of the loan was in question as a result of Neall's departure.

In his resignation letter and an interview, Neall said the school system has not done enough to contain costs this fiscal year, leaving its solvency at risk. He apparently wanted the financial rescue plan he helped craft to include more cost-cutting, but some members of the school board did not agree.

Neall, 55, a Baltimore native, has long been an advocate for city schools. He was chairman of the Budget and Taxation subcommittee on education and a member of the Thornton Commission, which developed a plan for distributing money to the state's needier school districts.

While Republicans resent the fact that Neall left the party in 1999 to become a Democrat, they do not deny his ability to resolve budget issues.

"He's probably the smartest fiscal person I've ever seen in the legislature," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

Sun staff writers Michael Dresser and David Nitkin contributed to this article.

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