Why all this cash for so few students?

The Baltimore Sun

The last MARC train from Washington to Baltimore wasn't more than 15 minutes out of Union Station on Thursday when the woman seated next to me asked my opinion of Andres Alonso, the poor soul who decided to take on the job as Baltimore's latest in a string of school chief executive officers.

"He ain't my kind of superintendent," I answered. "My kind of superintendent would have asked three questions from the start: 'Why am I being paid so darned much money? Why does Baltimore's school system spend so much more for administration than systems with more students? And why do you Balti-morons continue to say the city school system is underfunded, despite all evidence to the contrary?'"

Had Alonso asked those questions, he would have immediately identified himself as a boat rocker. Baltimore's school system needs a boat rocker, but that person will never be hired. The politicians running this town don't want a boat rocker heading the schools, at least not while they're steering the boat.

With that $58 million deficit of a few years ago and the recent revelations about school repairs that were paid for and not performed, Baltimore's leaders don't really want a school chief executive officer sticking his or her nose into that troubling question about administration costs. And troubling it is.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education report "Selected Financial Data Maryland Public Schools, 2004-2005, Part 2 - Expenditures," Baltimore's administration costs were the highest in the state. Those costs were more than $8 million higher than in Prince George's County, which was second. Montgomery County's administration costs were about $18 million less than Baltimore and Baltimore County's nearly $22 million less.

Prince George's County, Baltimore County and Montgomery all have more students than Baltimore. Such was the case in the 2004-2005 school year, when, according to the Web site www.md reportcard.org, Montgomery County had over 139,000 students. Baltimore County had nearly 108,000 and Prince George's County about 136,000.

Baltimore had about 88,000 students that year.

The school system closest to Baltimore in the number of students in 2004-2005 was Anne Arundel County, with about 74,000. School administration costs in Anne Arundel County for 2004-2005 were more than $30 million less than in Baltimore.

Lest anyone think the numbers suggest that a mess of overpaid administrators were lurking at school headquarters on North Avenue two years ago, the report doesn't support such a conclusion. The cost of salaries and wages in Baltimore, Baltimore County, Montgomery County and Prince George's County all fell in the $20 million to $26 million range. (Salaries and wages were about $14 million in Anne Arundel County.) The real discrepancy was in the categories of "contracted services" and "other charges."

Again, Baltimore led the state in contracted services, with about $18 million. Prince George's County came in second again, with just over $13 million. But Montgomery County, with 51,000 more students than Baltimore, spent just under $4 million for contracted services. Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties spent, respectively, about $5.5 million and $2.4 million.

The real question that taxpayers should have about the state expenditure report is why Baltimore's "other charges" for school administration are so much higher than the "other charges" for other systems. The figure was $4.6 million for city schools in 2004-2005. The combined figure for Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties came to nearly $2 million less.

Now, some might say it's not Alonso's job to question how this money was spent. They might even add that Alonso has more than a full plate just trying to get Baltimore schools on course academically. Those are valid points.

Maybe this town needs two chief executive officers: one to handle academics, one to look out for how our tax dollars are being spent. The combined costs of contracted services and "other charges" for Baltimore school administration in the 2004-2005 year are just a tad under 45 percent of the total. For those of us who still know the math that North Avenue school honchos and Baltimore politicians hope we don't know, that's nearly half.

I'm not suggesting that there's necessarily any hanky-panky about those disparate administration costs for Baltimore vis-a-vis other school systems, especially those with more students.

But, much like Lucy Ricardo, a system with a recent $58 million deficit and a scandal involving school repairs paid for and not done has some 'splaining to do. And somebody needs to 'splain those administration costs. If the costs are shown to be valid, then fine. If not, then a whole bunch of people need to be fired.

And we need a boat-rocking superintendent to handle all that canning.



Find Gregory Kane's archive at baltimoresun.com/kane

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