Years of systemic upheaval, poor communication and a lack of accountability all have contributed to the $58 million budget deficit in the Baltimore City Public School system, a special panel reported Tuesday to the Maryland State Board of Education.
But the three members of the panel, specially convened to discover whether wrongdoing by school officials contributed to the shortfall, said they did not believe that any substantial amount of the shortfall is the result of theft or misappropriation.
"I think most of the money was spent in the right way," said one panelist, Sanford V. Teplitzky, a lawyer. "I don't think a large amount of money went to fraud."
The report came at a decisive moment for the city's schools. A recent state audit concluded that the school system misused $18 million in federal funds earmarked for the poorest schools, a claim city school officials have challenged. And later this week, school officials are scheduled to appear before state and federal judges undertaking a review of a financial recovery plan laid out for the troubled system.
"We have a court date," said State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. She said she was sure the kind of systemic problems the panel had found would be discussed in court.
"I hope there will be direction," she said. "We'll have to move from there."
In Tuesday's report to the state school board, the panel traced many of the school system's problems back to 1997, when the state legislature replaced mayoral control of the system with a city-state partnership.
The partnership was designed to disengage city schools from city government, but state lawmakers never clearly laid out who would be ultimately responsible for governing the schools, the panel found. Nor did their law require the school system to balance its budget each year.
"The legislature did not adequately define the structure of the system, the transition into the new system, nor the management of the new system," said panelist Craig Thompson, also a lawyer. As a result, the new partnership was destined from the start to struggle with serious problems of oversight and accountability while attempting to educate children in one of the state's largest school systems.
City educators and administrators were singled out for praise on their success in raising test scores and helping children to learn in spite of what one state board member, Karabelle Pizzigati, called a state of constant "chaos and crisis."
"The system has experienced success for its students. That should not be lost," she said. But, she added, "we are not where we need to be."
The big question that still needs to be answered, Pizzigati said, is "Who's on first?"
In a system that has had, over the past six years, four chief executives and three chief financial officers, and which still is beholden to the City Council to pass its budget each year, there needs to be a clear sense of who is "responsible for providing discipline and structure," Pizzigati said.
Thompson echoed her conclusion.
"Who is really in control of the system?" he asked. "That question still has not been answered."