Baltimore school employees would be forced to take furlough days if the district has to absorb millions of dollars in education cuts outlined in the state's "doomsday" budget, city schools CEO Andrés Alonso said Tuesday as he prepared to present the fiscal year 2013 budget.
In preparation for a massive cut to public education should lawmakers fail to approve higher taxes in a special session starting Monday, the school system has developed a plan to negotiate with labor unions to have employees take four unpaid days off.
Alonso said the system found that the four furlough days, which would not include instructional days, would yield enough savings to hold school budgets untouched, a guiding principle of the system's budget.
In next year's $1.31 billion budget, Alonso plans to increase individual schools' funding and protect principals' spending power. He would only carry out furloughs — a cost-saving measure that school system employees have been shielded from for at least a decade — as a last resort.
"We wanted to communicate a philosophy, a way of doing business," Alonso said in an interview. "The schools need the most they can get to educate kids. That has to be first in the calculations."
Jimmy Gittings, president of the principals union, which also represents administrative staff in the central office, said it would be willing to sacrifice for the sake of schools.
"As usual, [we] would do anything possible to support the system financially," Gittings said. "We are always the first ones to step up when the system is in financial trouble."
Facing a schedule crunch, the school system built its budget anticipating that the "doomsday" budget cuts would be averted.
The district's 2013 budget, which could be radically changed after the special session, reflects a boost of roughly $1.5 million from 2012, primarily driven by an increase of salaries under the new teachers union contract.
For the past two years, the system has chipped away at the amount of money that principals have flexibility to spend as they see fit, a trend that school officials hope to reverse in 2013.
The system plans to push $11 million more in unrestricted funds to schools this year, budget documents show, to allow principals to maintain staffing and resource levels amid rising personnel costs. The system tapped its reserve fund and carryover funds from last fiscal year, officials said.
Still, some schools stand to feel a crunch. Federal funding, which includes Title I money that is given to schools with the poorest populations, is slated to decrease by about $15 million.
Alonso said he would look to fill that gap with savings from the elimination of Supplemental Educational Services, a tutoring program mandated under the No Child Left Behind Act, whose effectiveness has been unproven. The state Department of Education has applied for a waiver that would allow school districts to opt out of paying millions of dollars for the program.
For the fourth year in a row, the system will look to the central office to find savings. Alonso said that the district's headquarters, which has cut 938 employees, will trim $13 million this year, primarily by reducing temporary employees and other operational and contract costs.
Alonso acknowledged that the continuous slimming of the office could pose challenges in the future. "We're dealing with an effectiveness question if we continue to cut," he said.
The system plans to increase per-pupil funding from $5,000 to $5,155, a 3 percent rise, and the amount of additional funding, called "student weights," will also increase for certain groups.
The weights for students who have scored "basic" and "advanced" on state assessments will increase from $994 to $1,000. The weights for students with disabilities, $641, and high school students who receive free and reduced-price lunches, $750, will be maintained from last year.
School officials stressed that the system's proposed budget is at the mercy of the state. Unlike other school systems, Baltimore relies on the state for roughly 70 percent of its budget.
In a letter to the state's top leadership this week, Alonso joined superintendents from Prince George's and Montgomery counties, the largest school systems in the state, which serve the most poor and minority students, to implore state leaders to reverse funding cuts.
"If we are to make good on our commitment to educating children equitably, regardless of their geographic location, we must maintain, and even increase, our investment in education," the letter said.