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City school budget overstated enrollment

The Baltimore Sun

The budget approved by the Baltimore school board last month overstated the school system's enrollment for the current academic year by 1,000 students, officials acknowledged last night.

A new version of the budget, presented to the public this week, says there are 82,381 children attending city schools this year. The version that the school board approved said there are 83,312.

It was a mistake that could have had multimillion-dollar implications for the system, which receives government funds based on the number of students it serves. If officials miscalculated the city's enrollment by 1,000 students, at least $10 million would be at stake. But the bottom line for both versions of the budget was the same - nearly $1.2 billion - and officials said their revenue projections were based on the correct number.

The revelation shows a broader range of problems in the budget that the board approved unanimously March 27, with one member absent. The Sun reported this month that the approved budget was filled with errors and discrepancies.

In dozens of cases, the salaries in the approved budget did not match the number of employees who were supposed to be paid. It appeared that hundreds of people would earn hundreds of thousands of dollars, and some would earn millions. Others would earn nothing.

In response to the Sun article, system officials have said the errors were merely problems in style and presentation. This week, the system re-released the budget to correct the errors reported by the newspaper.

"The school system should just be honest that the process that led up to the production of the budget was fundamentally flawed, and their review of it was fundamentally flawed," said Matthew H. Joseph, executive director of the nonprofit Advocates for Children and Youth. "The staff should have never presented that budget with the hundreds upon hundreds of errors that we're discovering. The board should never have voted to approve a document that on its face is inaccurate."

The school system has recently recovered from a $58 million deficit discovered three years ago. Miscalculation of enrollment was a major factor contributing to that fiscal crisis.

At a public forum on the revised budget last night, board Chairman Brian D. Morris argued that the school system's fiscal management has improved drastically.

"This is an organization that 2 1/2 years ago was in financial crisis ... and was on the brink of not being able to provide an education to students," Morris said. "That has changed dramatically." He said the system went from having "no idea where its resources were" to having "clarity on where its resources are."

Also last night, the system released letters from city and state officials that they said verified its fiscal credibility.

The city's finance director, Edward J. Gallagher, wrote that the total amount budgeted for salaries reflects the total number of employees, and that the budget footnotes indicate that salary line items won't always match the number of employees. In cases where footnotes were missing, he wrote, there were "presentation errors."

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and one of her deputies wrote that the budget's "presentation format" is similar to that of other large school systems, and "wholesale changes are not warranted," though in some cases, information could be presented more clearly.

Earlier, a Grasmick spokesman said the state education department did not have time to review the content of the budget, only the manner in which it presents information.

Gallagher suggested several ways for the system to improve budget presentation, such as stating clearly where $78.3 million in new funds will be spent and "less use of acronyms and education/industry jargon."

The budget next goes to the City Council and Mayor Sheila Dixon for approval.

Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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