Only months after the Baltimore city school system had emerged from a serious financial crisis that required millions of dollars in state aid, The Sun's Sara Neufeld reported Monday that the school board had approved a $1.2 billion budget for the coming school year that was riddled with errors and discrepancies.
Her article was an outstanding piece of work which proved again that the best journalism often comes from beat reporting - where a knowledgeable journalist digs in, examines the details and produces articles that really matter. Neufeld's initial article documented how the 2007-2008 budget had so many mistakes that it was difficult to determine who was being paid for what - and where.
Shown Neufeld's findings, one school official contended that the school board had not "formally" voted on the budget because the document presented was a draft, while another contradicted that argument. The front-page article also showed that the budget for the current school year had serious errors as well.
Not surprisingly, some of those who produced the budgets attacked Neufeld's reporting. In her April 10 follow-up article, they claimed that the first story was "inaccurate and unfair" and "damaging to work we have tried to do to build the public trust." After legislators in Annapolis and City Council members in Baltimore demanded explanations, city school officials essentially told them the errors were acceptable because the numbers all added up in the end.
For the record, none of Neufeld's critics challenged the facts as presented in her articles. In my view, the one mistake The Sun made was not putting this story on the Sunday, April 8, front page instead of waiting until Monday. It deserved the larger Sunday audience.
Neufeld started working on this story a few months ago when she became aware of several discrepancies in the school system's budget for the current year. Line-item salary amounts did not appear to be appropriate for the number of people who would be paid. Neufeld noticed, for instance, that in the charter schools section, $9 million was allocated for two employees.
When she brought that questionable entry to the attention of school officials, they assured her it was just a typo. But a page-by-page examination of the budget revealed dozens of similarly questionable entries. To be sure she was reading and computing the figures correctly, she asked an expert in school budgets to review her work.
"Most of the work was just basic division, dividing the amount budgeted for salaries in a given department by the number of employees budgeted to work in that department and noting the cases where the result seemed higher or lower than normal," Neufeld told me last week. She also filed a Public Information Act request with the school system for a list of its 25 highest-paid employees to use for comparison.
Neufeld had just finished her analysis of the budget for the current school year when the budget for the 2007-2008 year was released. When she examined the new budget she found similar discrepancies. She waited to see if the board members discussed any of the problems before voting on the budget. They did not.
After the board's unanimous vote to approve the budget on March 27, Neufeld confirmed with the school system that the document the board had voted on was the one she examined, which had by then been posted online. Then she presented the school system with a list of her findings and started asking questions.
A number of readers reacted to her articles.
From David McGill: "Many thanks to The Sun for continuing to provide some real news to its readers. Just like you broke news on the ground rent issue and practically forced various levels of government to deal with the issue, I hope this 'Exclusive' forces people to act. I don't know if it's incompetence, negligence, lack of resources or what, but what I read about the discrepancies in the school's budget is simply unacceptable."
Beryl Lanterman said: "What a predictable response from the school board - attack the messenger. Stick to your guns."
Roger Campos said: "This type of financial analysis should have been done by school officials or outside accountants. Does the school system have an outside accountant? Who is watching the hen house? Keep up your investigation."
Barry F. Williams said: "It is incomprehensible to me that such sloppy accounting had not been noticed by the school board and in fact defended in the light of day. Please continue being the 'watchdog' for the city. Let's hope that someone from within becomes more vigilant."
City Council President Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's spokesman told Neufeld that the council will indeed be vigilant and will not allow the 2007-2008 school budget to get the required final approval if any errors or discrepancies exist. When asked how this year's budget got the council's approval when it has similar problems, the spokesman said he didn't know.
Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.