Leaders call wide city schools budget gap devastating | WYPR

Leaders call wide city schools budget gap devastating

Feb 15, 2017

Amelie Ward's children walk to towards the school's bus stop.
Credit Jonna McKone

With Baltimore city schools facing a $130 million shortfall-- roughly 10 percent of the annual budget—schools CEO Sonja Santelises has warned of painful cuts, including teacher layoffs.

Some of the specifics are beginning to take shape as school principals received their budgets last week.

Job Grotsky, the principal at Mount Royal Elementary in Bolton Hill says next year’s budget is significantly smaller than in the past.  He’s probably going to lay off nine people, some of them teachers.

“As a result we basically have to build the school from the ground up,” he said.

Like most city schools principals, Grotsky has had to deal with thin budgets before, but these cuts are more significant that anticipated.

“The scale is devastating emotionally, mentally,” he said.  “You’re talking about peoples’ lives as far as the adults in my building . . . and then you’re talking about the students’ lives.”

He and other city principals are developing their budgets with public input this week and next. Grotsky says given the reduced budget, he may have to rethink education at Mount Royal, where 9 out of 10 kids qualify for free or reduced meals.

He’s been able to attract more middle class families from Bolton Hill because of its strong enrichment offerings like drama clubs, field trips abroad, even camping trips.

In addition, the school has achieved an Excellence in Gifted and Talented Education (EGATE) rating. Grotsky says that’s a result of “having the funding to hire an external teacher to pull out students so we can service the gifted and advanced population.”

But he says he fears that “as the funding goes away, those types of programs will have to be cut.” 

The city school system gets most of its money—70 percent—from the state. That amount follows a statewide formula the General Assembly created for school funding in 2002, known as the Thornton formula.

It establishes a base rate of funding per child – around $7,000 – and requires spending adjustments depending on regional differences in costs to run schools, like salaries and energy costs. In addition, schools get more money based on the number of low-income kids, students with disabilities and English language learners. In 2002, the legislature increased the funding in steps up until 2008.  

“But then the recession hit,” said Bebe Verdery, Director of The ACLU of Maryland’s Education Reform Project. She says the state is not meeting its mandate under the Thornton formula.

“The legislature decided it could not afford to follow the formula and increase the funding to schools every year by inflation so they cut it back,” she said.

Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman, a former school board member and special education advocate, said the shortfall is caused by the relatively static funding and increasing costs.

“If the Thornton funding had grown proportionally the city would have gotten $290 million more in the intervening years,” he explained. “So there is a very huge gap in the resources that are available and should be available if the state fulfills its legal mandate to provide adequate funding.”

Hettleman, a former state Secretary of Human Resources, serves on the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education – also known as the Kirwan Comission. The commission was established by the General Assembly to review education funding formulas and determine how much the state and local districts should pitch in.

Part of the shortfall also stems from the millions of dollars in new development that does not generate additional tax revenue; it’s made the city look richer on paper, but resulted in less money for schools.

Hettleman said the General Assembly “will certainly want to consider some kind of factor to take into account the imbalance in a city like Baltimore of growth in wealth against growth in tax revenues.”

The Commission is to submit its recommendations to the General Assembly in time to go through the political mill of the 2018 session, which means it may be a while before Baltimore City schools gets any relief.      

Meanwhile, parents like Amalie Ward, whose 5 year old, Adair, is new to city schools, worry about the budget gap and the layoffs.

Adair is a kindergartener at Mount Washington Elementary School, where Ward volunteers.  She says she loves her neighborhood school, but resources are stretched thin there.

“Because I am able to volunteer in the school, I able see what resources are short,” she said. “For instance the school nurse was looking for a wheelchair for the nursing suite at school because it’s not in the budget to have a wheelchair.”

Ward, who is an occupational therapist, was able to get one donated.

“But it was sad to me they couldn’t afford to have a budget for kids who need it when they’re sick,” she said.  “So it worries me as a parent if these budget cuts go through that resources will be even more spread thin. And this is at one of the great schools in the city so I know it’s even worse elsewhere.”

The parent-teacher organization at Mount Washington has secured tens of thousands of dollars in extra funds each year through parent contributions, fundraising and grants. But even that isn’t enough to meet the needs, according to a 2016 adequacy study by APA consulting ,which says school districts across Maryland need $2.9 billion more.

And most schools in Baltimore do not have that kind of parent and community support to raise extra funds for field trips or hands-on science.  Ward wants to see more funding for schools and more people willing to invest in them.

“I believe the students in the city are more high poverty than other areas of the state, that they need more than teaching,” she said. “They need support staff. Sometimes the meals they get at school are the only meals they get a day. It makes sense to me that it costs more per student in Baltimore City public schools than elsewhere in the state.”

Despite the sweeping cuts, there’s a glimmer of a vision for the way forward. Ward says she’s encouraged by an active parent group that jammed a recent Baltimore Education Coalition meeting and by City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises’ openness on the budget gap.

At last night’s school board meeting she laid out the tough decisions ahead and tried to dispel rumors and worry.

“We held our schools harmless for as long as possible while providing compensation and benefits among the best in the state,” Santelises said to a packed meeting room and people watching on screens in over-flow areas. “We reduced school budgets with the greatest reluctance . . . This was not a surprise, and it is part of why I committed early to making sure all partners were informed of the severity of these cuts.”  

As for Principal Grotsky of Mount Royal, he says schools have to get creative and meet with their communities about funding priorities. He’s confident the school system will continue to make progress and get to a sustainable budget. 

“Give us a year or two,” he said, “and we will be right back at it. We will just take a hit.  We will get up and we will do what’s right for kids.”

Grotsky says school partners are already coming forward, asking how they can help. Education advocates hope that by the spring, the mayor and the governor find money in the budget to reduce some of the gap.

Dr. Sonja Santelises' testimony at the School Board Meeting: