City to audit school repairs

The Baltimore Sun

Mayor Sheila Dixon ordered an audit of the Baltimore school system's construction and renovation program yesterday, responding to reports that the system permitted shoddy work on multiple projects.

Saying she "will not tolerate the misuse or waste of school funding," Dixon called on the city comptroller and the city inspector general to identify the projects that were left incomplete and who was responsible for the problems.

The Sun reported yesterday that state inspectors found Baltimore school employees falsely certified that they had made promised repairs. The inspectors also found problems with renovations that were performed, including new windows cut to the wrong size, leaving gaps at the top, and new doors installed in rusty old frames although new frames were paid for.

"I am deeply dismayed by recent information suggesting that Baltimore City Public Schools may have paid out millions of dollars for school renovation work that was not done," Dixon said in a statement.

"That misleading information was provided to school system administrators and then passed on to the state is deeply troubling and unacceptable. That money meant to improve the quality of our schools was wasted is appalling."

Meanwhile, Gov. Martin O'Malley accused his own agency, the State Education Department, of unfairly singling out the city schools for scrutiny. His reaction differed sharply from that of other officials. The City Council president and education committee chairman called for a work session with school administrators to determine how they can best help to resolve the situation.

O'Malley, who clashed openly with state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick during his years as mayor, said the state investigation of city renovation projects smacked of "high-handed paternalism." During yesterday's Board of Public Works meeting, he said he suspects the state discovered Baltimore's problems only because the city has a more "open and transparent" tracking system than other school systems do.

"I don't want to discourage other systems from becoming open and transparent for fear that someone from the state who doesn't lift a finger to do the maintenance will come in and bash them," O'Malley said.

Both O'Malley and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp said they want more information on how extensively the state tracks maintenance projects in other districts. "If that doesn't happen, why doesn't that happen?" Kopp said.

An O'Malley spokesman said after the meeting that the governor was aware that the city schools were inspected as part of a statewide program. O'Malley was mayor at the time several of the renovation projects were performed. One of the most problematic projects, at Hampden Elementary, was done with funds from his "Believe in Our Schools" campaign.

The state inspects about 230 of Maryland's 1,400 public schools annually as part of a year-old program to ensure that buildings are well maintained. Inspectors visited 40 city schools last fall as part of that program, finding 585 deficiencies, far more than in any other jurisdiction.

The school system reported back to the state over the winter that many of the deficiencies had been, or were in the process of being, corrected. But when inspectors returned in February and March to do spot checks at five schools, they found that two-thirds of the problems the system said it had corrected - 52 out of 82 - had not been resolved.

David Lever, executive director of the state's public school construction program, said his inspectors returned to do spot checks in Baltimore first because of the enormous scope of problems found.

"Baltimore City was not singled out by any means," Lever said in an interview yesterday. "We found so much more there than elsewhere, we had to pursue it. It would have been unethical not to."

Lever said follow-up inspections will be performed over the summer in the state's 23 other school systems. "We think it's absolutely necessary to be fair and evenhanded across the state," he said. "It makes good sense to follow up."

He said the follow-up in Baltimore has led to "very good, productive results." Lever's staff has been meeting regularly in recent weeks with J. Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer, and his top deputies. Lever said he is confident that Scroggins was not knowingly relaying false information, but rather was being given inaccurate reports by members of his staff.

Since being informed of the inspectors' findings in late April, Lever said, Scroggins has been working hard to resolve the problems. Scroggins has taken disciplinary action against at least one person in management and has vowed to hold all of his employees accountable.

Scroggins, who has been in his job for a year, said yesterday that he appreciates any help the state or city government can provide, the audit Dixon ordered included.

"We thank the mayor," Scroggins said. "We appreciate her support, and we believe that our partnership can only help us to improve the city school system."

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake and Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called for a work session with school officials to see what they can do. Clarke, who chairs the council's education committee, offered whatever resources Scroggins needs, whether additional inspectors or help with contract oversight.

"You've got years' worth of mess backed up here," Clarke said. "How can we send in the troops to help?"

She said that all employees caught providing false information "need to say goodbye. ... That is intolerable. This is where our children go to school. We need to make it stop, together, right now."

Rawlings-Blake said in a statement that "we fully support Mr. Scroggins and his efforts in working through these issues which he has inherited."

Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., one of Dixon's opponents in this fall's mayoral race, pointed to the Sun article to bolster his argument for a return to mayoral control of the city schools. The schools have been run for the past decade under a partnership between the state and the city, which Mitchell and others argue leaves neither party accountable.

Dixon said yesterday that she would like to see a return to mayoral control over time, but the state's financial contribution to the city schools - which increased under the partnership - would have to be maintained.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who is challenging Rawlings-Blake in the race for council president, said Dixon should be ordering an audit of the entire school system, not just its construction and renovation program. Harris called for a financial audit of the system in April, after The Sun reported that the school board approved a budget filled with errors and discrepancies. The council is scheduled to vote on a revised version of that budget Monday.

"A sloppy budget, now we have this. What's going to be next?" Harris said yesterday. "We need to bring credibility to this system. Right now the system has no credibility."

Sun reporter Andrew A. Green contributed to this article.

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