State lawmakers are sharply criticizing Baltimore school leaders and demanding increased oversight following revelations that the district might have inflated student enrollment numbers.
The district's budget is being reduced by $30 million next school year, in part because the student population dropped and 1,900 pupil slots will no longer be funded by taxpayers. District officials have launched an investigation into whether hundreds of students were mistakenly kept on the rolls in previous years.
Del. Maggie McIntosh, the state lawmaker who represents Baltimore and chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, chided Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton, the school board and city leaders this week for the student overcount. She said that she was "blindsided" by the disclosure.
McIntosh said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and the City Council need to step up and take a more active role in monitoring the school system's budget and operations. She said the City Council should call in the superintendent weekly, if necessary, to stay on top of the school system's management.
"We need accountability from the CEO and the board, and we need a renewed effort to reform our schools and make them the best they can be," said McIntosh, who spoke on behalf of House Democratic leadership.
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she shares "concerns regarding the student enrollment data and potential loss of state dollars" and has pledged to work closely with the city's General Assembly delegation to "do what is best for the children of the Baltimore City Public Schools."
But other city leaders fired back, saying that both city and state government bear responsibility for the school system, while the City Council's role is limited.
City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young pointed out that the council does not appoint school board members — they are jointly appointed by the mayor and governor — nor does the council confirm the superintendent. He also noted that council approval of the school system's budget is "just a formality" because council members cannot amend it.
"I am offended," he said. "This is a city-state partnership, but we have no control over the school system."
Young has long advocated for the school system, which was put under joint city and state control in 1997, to be returned to full city control. Such a step could jeopardize state funding, which increased under the joint partnership.
Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the council's education committee, said she had heard of students not being dropped from the district's rolls when they should have been. But she didn't think it was a widespread problem and expressed outrage at the district's disclosures.
"Doctoring attendance is akin to doctoring test scores," she said.
She also said the council's lack of power to investigate the issue is frustrating.
"We're going to lose millions, but we have no authority whatsoever to demand records and see systemically how systemic it is," she said. "We need to get our act together, quickly, for the children."
Thornton ordered an investigation last spring after noticing that the number of students in classrooms didn't match the rosters. He said officials have discovered "irregularities" and "discrepancies" related to how previous administration counted students.
Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat and member of the House Appropriations Committee, said the current administration needs to take responsibility for the population loss and not "pass the buck."
"These numbers represent students who are falling through the cracks," she said. "And if they're not here or they're not coming to school for some reason, we need to find out."
But some, including Thornton's predecessor Tisha Edwards, questioned whether Thornton's administration has maintained efforts to keep students in school. Under the previous administration, principals had to document a "due diligence" process to find students who were truant or dropped out before they were allowed to drop them from rosters. School officials acknowledge they found cases where principals were not completing that process.
An investigation last spring revealed that at least 200 students were not dropped from rosters when they should have been. Among some educators, these children are known as "ghost students." The revelation spurred a crackdown on attendance-taking and accurate enrollment counts this school year.
Union leaders said teachers and principals had been pressured by administrators to keep students on their rosters even if they didn't regularly attend school. The union officials also said that the central office is responsible for submitting accurate counts to the state.
District administrators are still investigating how widespread the problem has been.
Every year, the Maryland State Department of Education requires a student census as of Sept. 30 for calculating state and city funding. Students have to meet age and attendance criteria to be funded.
The department is currently auditing enrollment for the 2014 and 2015 school years, after which the school district will learn whether it has to pay money back. State officials said the audit will be released by June 30.
Thornton declined to comment on the calls for increased oversight of his administration.
Marnell Cooper, president of the city school board, who praised Thornton's efforts to find the student count discrepancies, said the board is "continuing to work to improve the school system."
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga, a Baltimore County Republican, said the city should have to pay money back. She noted that audits and other investigations in recent years found that the district misspent federal money, paid out six-figure leave accruals when employees left the system, and other issues.
She said the school system needs a "comprehensive audit" of its finances by an independent entity.
"It would be different if this was the first time that state money had been misspent, but this seems to be habitual," said Szeliga. "How many times are taxpayers across the state supposed to turn the other way?"
The roughly $17,000 the state pays for each Baltimore student is among the highest in the state, Szeliga said, and it needs to be tracked and spent wisely to ensure "that we deliver a quality education to our kids in the city."
Szeliga said the accuracy of Baltimore's student counts have been a concern in past years, and she was impressed that Thornton "is addressing the issue and not sweeping it under the rug."
House Minority Leader Nic Kipke also said lawmakers expect "serious reforms."
"There's a long history of public corruption in Baltimore city schools, and I am really pleased to see Baltimore City leaders finally taking it seriously," said Kipke, an Anne Arundel County Republican.
State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, called the student miscount "depressing to say the least." He said Thornton had informed lawmakers about enrollment discrepancies last year, and he thought it would have been corrected by now.
"It's a cloud over us," McFadden said. "It does make it difficult for us to convince our fellow legislators that we are good stewards of the money."
Education advocates and Baltimore lawmakers are calling for the city to be spared from funding losses this year.
They want to tweak a state funding formula under which the city's "wealth" has increased and prompted some of the school funding cuts.
They also want Hogan to give the city a reprieve from enrollment-related funding losses, as he is proposing to do for three other jurisdictions, including Carroll County.
Doug Mayer, a Hogan spokesman, said the governor granted a reprieve to those districts because they have seen enrollment declines for five consecutive years, whereas this is the first in the city.
Bebe Verdery, education reform director for the ACLU of Maryland, noted that the governor has an overall budget surplus and said all districts should be treated equally when it comes to declining enrollment.
"This is not the time to cut the city," said Verdery. "We can all speculate and have feelings about why enrollment is down, but [students] are not going to get what they need, and we know they don't have what they need now."
Maryland Policy & Politics
Del. Susan Krebs, a Carroll County Republican, said lawmakers in Carroll have had concerns for years that Baltimore was overstating its enrollment numbers, and there was a failed legislative effort to have two counts per year, one in the fall and another in the spring, instead of capturing enrollment data on Sept. 30.
"We're losing enrollment because we can't grow," she said of Carroll County. "In the city, it wasn't even a drop; it wasn't there to begin with."
McIntosh said she would push for more state funding for city schools, even as the student miscounts "make it more challenging" to get that through the General Assembly.
"City delegates, House leadership will not punish Baltimore city school youth because of sloppy record-keeping."
Baltimore Sun reporters Erin Cox and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.