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Lax state scrutiny to blame for Baltimore school mess

February 28, 2004

The resignation of former Maryland state senator Robert Neall as financial advisor to the Baltimore City school system has triggered a crisis, as a plan for dealing with a $75 million deficit fell apart.

Now Maryland officials are talking about a possible takeover of the system. If "takeover" means giving state officials oversight authority, that's fine. But if it means making the state's taxpayers more responsible for the costs of that system than they are now, forget it.

In 1996, then Gov. Parris Glendening agreed to a $250 million settlement of a lawsuit brought on behalf of the Baltimore City school system. It's worth remembering that at the time, state Sen. Barbara Hoffman praised the settlement because "it provides for a change of a management and a new direction..."

Three years later, Maryland School Superintendent Nancy Grasmick said she was giving schools on the state's list of poorly performing educational institutions another year to shape up.

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Some of those schools had been on that list since 1993, which led one Baltimore child -advocacy group to complains that the time those schools had already spent on probation was just "extra years of no results."

Grasmick said then that the schools needed an extra year because they were operating under a new "master plan" written after the schools yielded partial control to the state after the $250 million settlement.

Whatever responsibility Baltimore officials have for this fiasco, it seems clear the state education officials have had plenty of time to influence the situation for the better - and didn't. Test scores have improved, but not the financial situation. And now the school system needs a $42 million state loan just to get through the current year.

Can the state let students down by refusing the loan? No, but in exchange for a larger stake in this money pit, state officials ought to force changes - and give someone knowledgeable like Neall czar-like powers over the budget.

Elected officials should also consider whether it's time for Grasmick to go. If she or her people had been more vigilant, things might not have gotten so bad.

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