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O'Malley's Math

Posted 9/3/2003

In y'all's article summarizing Martin O'Malley's record as mayor, the statistics on "contract add-ons" are uninformative ("Believe It . . . or Not," Aug. 27). You compare $24.2 million dollars for add-ons spent between 1994 and 1996 with $27.4 million spent in 2000-'02. Similarly, an average of $35,000 per add-on under Schmoke became an average of $42,000 under O'Malley. But are these numbers adjusted for inflation? The article doesn't say. If the figures aren't inflation-adjusted, O'Malley's $27.4 million may be less money than Schmoke's $24.2 million.

You all write, "the amounts granted have grown--especially when measured as a share of the total value of city contracts receiving additional payments . . . the add-ons' share of the total value of contracts rose from 3.3 percent to 6.5 percent." But as your numbers show, the number of contracts receiving add-ons decreased by almost a third (297 to 216), and the total value of these contracts shrank by about 40 percent ($734 million to $424 million), while the amount spent on add-ons remained relatively constant (if the dollars are inflation-adjusted). Does this represent failure because the amount spent went up by $3 million, or success because the number of contracts receiving add-ons decreased? Did the total number/dollar value of all city contracts increase or decrease in this time period? We can't tell.

I'm not writing to defend or bash the city's handling of contracts under O'Malley. I don't know the first thing about city contracts. But by themselves, the numbers you all gave don't seem to make much of a case.

Allan Massie

Van Smith responds: First off, I'm happy someone was interested enough in this math to question it.

The key measure here is the total value of contract add-ons--additional payments to city contractors, made over and above the original contract amounts--as a share of the total value of all contracts. Under Schmoke, from 1994 through 1996, add-ons comprised 3.3 percent of $734 million in contracts. Under O'Malley, from 2000 through 2002, they comprised 6.5 percent of $424 million in contracts. Thus, add-ons' share of the city's total value of contracted work during these periods nearly doubled under O'Malley compared to their share under Schmoke. City contracting is less efficient when add-ons comprise greater proportions of city spending on contracts. Thus, city contracting under O'Malley is less efficient than under Schmoke.

As for inflation, these are far from inflationary times--it's been running at around 1 percent to 2 percent since the mid-'90s. Nonetheless, I considered running a conversion factor to 2002 dollars. I decided against it because my task was to calculate rates using numbers from the same years--Schmoke-era spending on add-ons as a share of all Schmoke-era contract spending, and O'Malley-era spending on add-ons as a share of all O'Malley-era contract spending. I hope that clears things up.

Graduation Gradation

As a part of an otherwise very educational and informative article on one of the leading candidates for the Democratic party's nomination for mayor, author Waris Banks describes "a soaring high-school dropout rate" and a "75 percent dropout rate for African-American males" ("What's Up, Doc?", Aug. 13). A range of persons running for office in Baltimore have described similar "statistics" over the last several months.

As a citizen with access to public data, a member of the Baltimore City School Board, and as an educational researcher, I'm at a loss to understand such reports.

Each year the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE) gathers, checks, and publishes a wide range of data on schools and school districts. MSDE reports in the spring of 2002 that the four-year graduation rate (ninth-graders graduating four years later) for African-American males was 51.5 percent. The same statistics for African-American females was reported at 67.28 percent, and for white males and females 49.37 percent and 60.06 percent (both slightly lower than their African-American counterparts but above Hispanic graduation rates).

Researchers in the school system and at Johns Hopkins University have conducted a series of analyses of longitudinal student data, looking for patterns over time. Using different assumptions about such topics as "what is a graduate" (ex., counting students who stay on a fifth year to graduate or not), and how to code students who transfer to other districts, one can produce a range of "graduation rates" for any school system. However, we are unable to produce any graduation rate as low as 25 percent in Baltimore, regardless of the set of assumptions.

Further, the consistent finding is that graduation rates have risen for the overall Baltimore student population, and for various subgroups, including African-American males. The rise has been both in the short run of one to two years, and also in the longer, four-five year time frame. The rise has been among blacks and whites, males and females. Graduation rates are up in Baltimore's neighborhood high schools, vocational high schools, and are remaining at virtually 100 percent in our most selective high schools (Poly, Western, and City College).

In addition to high-school graduation rates, Baltimore has made dramatic gains in elementary and middle school achievement. We've raised teacher and principal pay, we've brought thousands more computers into schools, bought literally hundreds of thousands of new texts, and increased the budget for repairing/upgrading school facilities.

Do our children and our school system still have a long way to go? Of course we do. But the road will seem less rocky if we remind ourselves of the very real, hard-won progress made so far by our students, teachers, and administrators. We need to get past sensational sounding but inaccurate statistics, and stick with the very hard, steady work of improving the quality of schooling for all of Baltimore's 94,000 talented public-school children.

Sam Stringfield
Vice Chair, Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners


The "Some Get It" City

After all the tedious, mindless searching for a Baltimore City motto, Laura Lippman captured it perfectly when she said, "With Baltimore, some people get it and some people don't" ("Secrets and Ties," Aug. 20). That's by far the best summary of "Charm City" to date.

Jody Kloch

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