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City Council Committee to Look at Stop Gap Funding for Schools

Dominique Maria Bonessi

Some Baltimore City public schools have lost thousands of dollars in federal funding because of changes to the school lunch program. City Council members are looking for ways to bridge the gap.

Three years ago, the city school system joined a universal lunch program that gives every student a free lunch, regardless of income.

But to do that, the schools had to change the way they counted poor students. And that left some schools looking richer than they are.

Mark Gaither, principal of Wolfe Street Academy in southeast Baltimore, recalls when he noticed the shift to his school’s funding a year later.

“When our state-wide assessment scores came back, we were grouped with a group of schools we had never been grouped with before,” said Gaither.

Typically, his school would have been grouped with schools where 90 to 100 percent of the students were living in poverty. But because of the change, his school was grouped with those with 80 percent to 90 percent poverty rates.

That meant his school lost about $10,000 in federal money. Gaither says that means he can run after school programs for only 65 percent of his kids, rather than the 85 percent he had been serving. Those kids who were left out? Well, they’re on a waiting list.

“They don’t get the academic support, they don’t get the enrichment, they don’t get the evening meal,” said Gaither. “And if someone gave me $20 to $50,000 more of those kids could have been there.”

The same pattern was found across seven other schools in East Baltimore with pre-dominantly low-income, immigrant student populations. And that goes back to the universal lunch program.

Previously, the system used the numbers of kids who qualify for free and reduced price lunches to determine poverty levels. To be counted under the universal lunch program, families must participate in federal programs such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

And immigrant families, especially undocumented families, are less likely to qualify, or even apply. Schools CEO Sonja Santelises says that’s not surprising.

“Because of well-founded fears and concerns about what government action either by ICE or others, might occur, we have a number of families who are not filling out forms that are not counted,” said Santelises.

And that bothers principal Gaither.

“Just because a child is undocumented doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to a free and public education, supported by all the programs they are supposed to be supported by,” said Gaither.

At one city school with a high immigrant population, an informal survey found that only four out of the 50 immigrant parents with US-born children received SNAP benefits. District One City Councilman Zeke Cohen says that is part of the problem with funding.

“It has to do with a general culture of fear facing our immigrant families, less folks are able to sign up for SNAP,” said Cohen.

Cohen says he’s looking for alternative funding methods during the council’s budget deliberations.

“Our kids can’t wait,” said Cohen. “Could there be some kind of stop gap measure where we attempt to get either city, state, or more funds from North Avenue just to hold us over until the Kirwan Commission.”

The Kirwan Commission is the statewide panel that has been working for nearly two years to draft a new funding formula for Maryland schools that is expected to provide more money for schools in low income neighborhoods.

But Cohen says he worries that the results of this year’s governor’s race could have an impact on how the commission’s final recommendations are implemented by the new governor.

“If we don’t have a governor that truly values the lives of all of our children then I fear that even with a great Kirwan report, we may end up still under funding our schools,” said Cohen.

The city council has limited power over how the school system spends its allotted funding. But Cohen says he’s going to propose the shifting funds to plug the gaps left by the loss of federal funds.

Wolfe Street Academy’s Mark Gaither says even though this is an issue in a minority of city schools now, the minority is growing.

“If things keep moving as they are in terms of demographics in the city, it is going to be a district-wide issue pretty soon,” said Gaither.

A City Council committee is scheduled to take up the problem, and possible solutions, with school officials on Thursday.

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