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Schools budget errors debated

The Baltimore Sun

A divided Baltimore school board debated yesterday the significance of errors in the budget it recently approved, with some members acknowledging that they had not read it line by line and others demanding to know how administrators will fix the problems.

At the same time, school system officials said that all six staff members in the office responsible for preparing the budget are new to their jobs, with the most senior employee having been there for about seven months.

The board's chairman and the head of its finance committee have played down the significance of a Sun report that the $1.2 billion budget for next school year is filled with mistakes, arguing that the problems were only a matter of presentation.

Other board members, speaking publicly for the first time yesterday, said they were not satisfied with the administrators' explanations for the problems.

"I'm sorry. I'm really concerned here that we're not addressing the main concern that people are expressing," said Robert Heck, who was absent from the March 27 board meeting, at which the budget was approved unanimously by the other eight members. "The presentation is what people have to rely on. The criticism we received from the community is not totally off base."

The board met to review the revisions administrators are making in the budget, which will be presented to the public tonight.

The Sun found that many salary line items listed in the budget the board approved did not match the number of people they were supposed to be paying. The document made it appear that hundreds of employees were making hundreds of thousands - and in some cases, millions - of dollars. Others appeared to be paid nothing or almost nothing.

In several cases, administrators say, employees' positions and salaries were listed on different pages, but the overall budget figures added up.

Board member Maxine Wood called such a document "unwieldy" and said it is difficult for the public to understand. She also said the budget is "useless" if people can't track where the money is going.

"The document should not come forward again with the same kind of presentation discrepancies," she said. She was upset when administrators said other school systems format their budget the same way. "Our answer should not be, 'This is how other people do it,'" she said.

Chairman Brian D. Morris said the board's finance committee will take the lead in studying ways the budget can be formatted better in future years. If necessary, he said, the board will bring in outside experts.

Kalman R. "Buzzy" Hettleman, head of the finance committee, said city and state officials who have reviewed the budget in the past week will confirm that there were errors in the line items but that the totals are accurate.

"We wish there weren't presentation errors, but there always are, to some degree," Hettleman said.

The newspaper found similar problems in the current academic year's budget, which was adopted by the mayor and City Council after school board approval.

Some council members have said that they don't have enough time to review the schools budget in detail because the system gives it to them shortly before they must vote on it. Yesterday, some school board members acknowledged that they, too, do not read every budget line item.

"Most of us look at the bottom line," member George M. VanHook Sr. said in an interview after yesterday's board work session. He said he was looking this year to see how much money the system had budgeted for important initiatives, such as pre-kindergarten expansion, middle school reform and increased school police presence.

Hettleman said the system produces a budget summary because no one has time to read the full document.

"It is impossible for the community, or the board for that matter, to deal with hundreds of pages and tens of thousands of line items," he said.

The budget summary was rewritten last month in response to the concerns of Hettleman, who now defends the document. At a March 13 board meeting, he said, "The starting point in improving this budget process is for staff to acknowledge the need for the community and the board to get good and complete information."

Hettleman said yesterday that the budget errors were being fixed at the time The Sun exposed them in an article April 9.

But John Walker, the system's chief financial officer, acknowledged that he would not have noticed many of the problems if the newspaper had not brought them to his attention. The only errors explained in a document released yesterday were those reported in The Sun.

Board Vice Chairwoman Jerrelle Francois wanted to know whether Walker and his staff had found any other problems, saying that system officials should not just be responding to the media.

"I want to make sure we understand our role in accountability and make sure these type of things do not occur again," she said.

Francois and other board members were concerned that the system's budget office is understaffed. Walker said the office's entire staff of six has turned over in the past year and that the most senior employee has "six, seven months experience."

The revised budget - which Morris called the "final, final version" - was scheduled to be posted by last night on the system's Web site, www. baltimore Administrators will present the document at another board meeting scheduled for 7 tonight at system headquarters, 200 E. North Ave.

Walker said the new document puts employees' positions and salaries on the same page and corrects numbers that were transposed.

Officials have attributed many of the problems to a new budget format that reflects an administrative reorganization. In addition, they say, they have made this year's budget process more transparent to the public than in previous years, holding budget forums before approving the document.

In response to the budget problems, elected officials have called for sanctions against the school system, including a freeze on city funds and a legislative audit.

Mayor Sheila Dixon and Gov. Martin O'Malley have said the issue was overblown in the newspaper. Dixon was council president and O'Malley was mayor last year when they approved the current school budget.

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