Math mistakes adding up in Md.

January 12, 2009

Hey kids, good news -- if you earned a "D" on that last math test, have no fear. At least it didn't cost a school system $24 million in state funds. At least not that you or I know of.

But such a math error did happen in Maryland, where, according to The Washington Post, "an error of simple addition" misstated Montgomery County property value by $16 billion.

That, the Post says, is equal to the gross domestic product of Jordan. The article doesn't say whether that's Jordan as in the nation or Jordan as in Michael.

Anyway, the error of simple addition "set off a chain reaction" of improper school-funding calculations statewide and "spread, viruslike, through the budgets of at least 18 counties before it was corrected."


Apparently it took eight months for the mistake to be noticed, or at least reported-- which it finally was, by Montgomery County itself.

Yeah, millions of dollars are like that. What with this and all the bailouts and war spending and upcoming social programs, it makes you wonder whether numbers even matter anymore when it comes to money.

You can put a numeral after the $, but why bother? If $24 million can get lost in the state washing machine when you're running a load of educational colors, I'm thinking the problem might be a little steeper than a simple error in addition.

But the news gets better. Apparently, Montgomery County's loss was other counties' gain, as the state spit out $31 million in overpayments to 17 other school systems, including $5 million for Anne Arundel and $2 million for Frederick.

Washington County was not mentioned. Typical. Even the state's mistakes don't benefit us.

Amazingly, none of the counties that were overpaid noticed -- or bothered to report it if they did. And the state says it won't go back and try to recoup the overpayments, meaning the state is another $31 million in an already appreciable hole. But the budget deficit deals in billions. These are only millions. So who cares?

If it makes you feel better, the state Department of Assessments and Taxation did apologize, so we have that going for us.

The Post says the mistake occurred in November 2007, when two state workers were plugging in numbers.

"New to the job, they mistakenly entered $179,739,399,000, the projected value of county real estate in July 2008. They should have entered $163,916,000,000, the value for July 2007. The figure was $15,823,399,000 too high."

I feel for the workers; when you're dealing with that many digits, who wouldn't get confused? The agency's director took "full responsibility" for the mistake.

Let me explain the difference between responsibility and blame. People who are to blame lose their jobs; people who are responsible do not.

The workers have been "disciplined" -- and, I hope, provided with new calculators that go that high.

All this should make you feel confident as Maryland lawmakers begin to arrive in the capital to work on the state's $1.9 billion budget deficit. After all, these were the professionals who made the school error. Wait until it's amateur night at Harry Browne's.

Of course all this does offer a potential solution. Instead of a $1.9 billion deficit, just have the assessment department write us down for a $1.90 deficit. That should take care of the problem for at least eight months.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at

The Herald-Mail Articles