Monday, March 19, 2007

Baltimore County Schools in Disrepair

The Baltimore Sun is reporting on the findings of an audit committee that was brought into examine Baltimore schools:
When auditors descended upon Baltimore County's schools late last year to zero in on the weaknesses of the system's plans for teaching children, they expected to find the typical lapses in communication between top administrators and teachers, poor coordination of new programs and insufficient training. But the team, which included former and current superintendents, teachers and administrators from across the country, said they were shocked to also find school buildings in extreme disrepair.

"This is the one where you flunked," Fenwick W. English, the lead auditor of the independent review, told school board members last week during their meeting. "One of your principals said, 'If it doesn't arc or spark ... no one is going to come by and get to it.'"

English added that it was difficult to fathom how teachers are able concentrate and teach in those schools and said "the repairs that are needed really kind of broke our hearts."

School board members and administrators said the auditors rightly noted deficiencies, and they stressed their commitment to improving those conditions. But, they added, the district has some of the state's oldest schools, and county and state funding consistently falls far short of the system's needs.
The fact that the city paid for this conclusion is a symbol of the screwed up priorities of the school board. Actually, that is not fair, the auditors did their job and catalogued the poor condition of the schools, but top leaders once again did the blame shifting game. Here is what Baltimore County Exective said:
Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said last week that he is perplexed by criticism of the school system's buildings -- especially the elementary schools, which were recently renovated at a cost of $280 million in county and state funding.

"We're putting a lot of funding toward bringing schools up to a reasonable standard," he said. "It's clear we have a major systemic problem, and we're addressing it."
This from the Superintendant of schools:
Schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said that the school system realizes that every school isn't in top-notch condition but that the district is responding as efficiently and quickly as possible to the building needs.

"If we had a fully funded maintenance program for 10 years, there would be no problem," he said. "We know we have limited resources. We move on, and we take care of the things we can."
And this from teh director of school facilities:
Michael G. Sines, the school system's executive director of facilities, said he empathizes with principals' frustration. To improve the system, he added this year a computerized maintenance request system that enables administrators to place work orders and track them.

"What Dr. English's team observed didn't occur overnight," Sines said. "It is the direct result of the number of years of facilities being underfunded."
I generally don't get the underfunded issue. I know that schools generally request a great deal of money for the capital budget and rarely get funded at their full request, but rarely are school shorted very much in budget areas.

But let me offer a possible explanation: poor budget oversight and bad contractor selection. While this audit team was not responsible for tracking the money, my guess is that if a financial audit was done, you will find some really bad practices in funding, allocation of funds and, like I said, poor oversight and control.

The problem with the current model of funding schools and school facilities is a problem not of a lack of resources but a lack of a steady stream of resources and a lack of planning. If Baltimore County and other counties in Maryland operate in s similar fashion, capital budgets are allocated on a seven year plan, with the plan being revisited every year. But most school budgets are predicated on a couple of fluid funding mechanisms, i.e. property taxes and school enrollment. In areas where school enrollment is increasing, you will usually find increasing property values and therefore property taxes. Those taxpayers, expect, not unreasonably, that those taxes be used for their local schools.

Such a funding mechanism may be appropriate for services that are student based, i.e. number of teachers, cafeteria, even text book purchases. But student centerd funding is not appropriate for capital budgets, yet that is how many capital budgets are allocated. If you want to avoid the facilities meltdown that affects school districts that are not growing or even worse declining, the state and local governments need to think more about a capital budget plan separate from student funding and be more aggressive about facilities management, including being ready to close or sell or lease low demand school buildings.

Returning to Baltimore County, we have a county that is not growing as fast as other Maryland counties, their tax base has stagnated, even perhaps taking a hit in teh recent real estate slow down, such that tax revenues are not keeping up with needs and capital budgets suffer.

While the auditor wondered how teachers work in such conditions, you also have to wonder about how kids learn in such environments. But, and pardon my cynicism, I'll bet the county school administration building is state of the art. Perhaps if administrators had to work in conditions like their teachers, things would change.

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