SOMETIMES there's a real benefit to restating the obvious, and this is one of those times. Last February, state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick appointed a three-member panel to try to figure out how the Baltimore school system's finances had gone so wrong, and yesterday it came back with a report that was forceful and clear:
The so-called city-state partnership formed in 1997 resulted in no one being in charge. The system's bureaucracy mightily resisted change, hunkering down in the expectation that it would survive whatever came its way. There was no control over contractual spending. There was no control over payroll. The system got stuck with huge maintenance costs. Burgeoning outlays on special education weren't under control because they were subject to federal court supervision. The emphasis was on improving academic achievement, with budgetary issues an afterthought.
The result was a $58 million deficit. Blame belongs primarily to the administrators of the system (starting with former schools chief Carmen V. Russo) and to a school board that failed to provide oversight. Secondarily, City Hall, the state Department of Education and the state legislature all did less than they should have.
That's it. No unexpected bombshells. No news, even. But in 24 pages of lucid prose, retired Circuit Judge Barbara Kerr Howe and lawyers Sanford V. Teplitzky and Craig A. Thompson laid out the fundamental problems bedeviling the system while commendably steering clear of politics.
The question is: What to do now?
Bonnie S. Copeland, the city schools chief, said yesterday that her administration has already started addressing the issues. The panel members' comment: Yes, but.
Yes, but there's much more still to be done. Yes, human resources is under control, but the "culture of complacency" is still very much alive, even in the greatly reduced North Avenue bureaucracy. Yes, procurements and invoices are better tracked, but the city school board still hasn't asserted control, and without the school board, it's unclear who's in charge. The 1997 partnership was supposed to separate the system from City Hall, but with this spring's bailout loan, City Hall is reasserting a role - so what does that mean for the partnership?
The members of the panel emphasize that the system needs structure, discipline and accountability. Some of that must come from the outside, with a rethinking of the muddled lines of authority established by law seven years ago - and perhaps with a rethinking as well of the costs and benefits of judicial oversight. But the greater change will have to be inside the system. The need is obvious; for a start, every administrator should read the report.