Baltimore City Council members briefed

Baltimore City Council members (right) are briefed by representatives of Mayor Martin O'Malley about his proposal to bail out the Baltimore school system using money from the rainy-day fund. (Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr. / March 16, 2004)

As officials at City Hall detailed their plan to save Baltimore's financially strapped schools yesterday, the system's former financial adviser, Robert R. Neall, was predicting in Annapolis that the deal is doomed to fail and the state will eventually have to provide aid.

In a handwritten letter delivered this week to Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Neall - who resigned last month as school system adviser - said the financial crisis is worse than reported.

"Please keep this important issue on your radar screens," he wrote. "The problems are deeper and the implications are more serious than widely known."

Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, called Neall's letter "irrelevant."

"Everybody understands this is a difficult situation and we're managing it," Kearney said.

School system spokeswoman Edie House said top school officials would not comment on Neall's letter because it was not addressed to them.

But school board member Ralph Tyler said the nine-member board is determined to make the city plan work, despite nay-sayers.

"Going back several weeks, we know that Senator Neall is prone to extraordinary exaggeration," Tyler said. "I think that lots of people - starting with the mayor and the school board - are totally committed to making this effort successful."

At a briefing last night, City Council members tried to assert some influence over the mayor's plan, which is to come before the Board of Estimates today.

Council President Sheila Dixon said she would propose an amendment giving the council a representative on the fiscal oversight committee the mayor wants to appoint. She also suggested that Comptroller Joan M. Pratt have a representative.

Council members did not discuss Neall's letter.

Reached on his cell phone yesterday, Neall was surprised that his personal letter had reached the public. But he said he still is concerned about the city schools.

"My only agenda was to help this very troubled organization with its financial problems," he said. He added that it was "my duty" to notify the state officials of the severity of the problems.

Neall said he wrote and mailed the letter last week, after O'Malley unveiled the outlines of a surprise city proposal to provide a loan to the schools. In exchange for funding, the city would have more control over school system operations.

That proposal replaced a state plan that would have done virtually the same thing.

Neall's three-page letter was stamped as being delivered in Annapolis on Monday. In it, he asks top state officials to devise their own backup plan to help the city schools "when (not if) this issue lands in your respective in-boxes."

After reading Neall's letter, Miller said the schools situation needs to be monitored by the state. But he said it is officially the city's problem.

"I'm confident the mayor would not have taken this step if he did not feel he could get the parties to make major sacrifices," Miller said. "[O'Malley] knows the pitfalls involved. I salute him for making a bold decision."

This week, Baltimore school board members voted to accept O'Malley's plan, giving them a $42 million loan from the city's rainy day fund and ceding to the city some oversight of the system's financial matters.