The Baltimore City school board voted Tuesday to pass the district's proposed $1.31 billion budget, which includes a decrease in the per-pupil funding for charter schools.
As the amount spent on students in traditional schools increases, the system's 33 charter schools will see their per-pupil expenditures drop by $257 from 2012, for a total of $9,007. The overall amount for charters, however, has steadily increased as their populations grow.
The charters are funded differently than traditional schools. The schools negotiated to receive in cash what the district spends per-pupil and pay for the bulk of their own central services. For traditional schools, those services are deducted from the overall per-pupil amount.
The per-pupil decrease comes at a time when charters will feel the pain of new reforms in the district, particularly in labor union contracts. For example, while traditional schools are charged the average salary of educators, charters pay the actual costs.
But charter leaders said they are still waiting for answers from the district about how to stop the three-year trend, during which funding for charters has decreased by $400 per pupil, but costs have continued to rise.
"Charter schools are facing a very challenging financial environment," said Will McKenna, principal of Afya Public Charter School.
"Unfortunately we have not been able to get a clear answer from the district explaining this drop, which undermines the financial stability of the schools and unquestionably impacts the programming we have been approved to provide to our students."
Schools chief Andrés Alonso said that the charter's funding formula was applied the same way as in previous years, and that charters are experiencing the effects of rising costs, increasing populations and flat expenditures.
"That is basic math, not the district or the formula," Alonso said. "It's the dilemma in how we are doing business."
Alonso said, however, that the school system is conducting a study that looks at the costs of central office services and expenditures that might allow all schools to receive more funding.
"Every time a school gets less I am troubled, and we need to find a way for that to change," Alonso said.
The system will increase its per-pupil expenditure at traditional schools by 3 percent this year, funding all students at $5,155. Additional funding called "student weights" will also increase for certain groups of students.
Schools will receive an additional $6 for students who score at basic and advanced levels. The weights for students with disabilities, $641, and high school students who receive free and reduced-price lunch, $750, will be maintained from last year.
The overall fiscal 2013 budget will increase by about $1.5 million this year, primarily driven by rising costs associated with pay increases under the system's teachers union contracts. That will mean another year that the district's central office will get leaner, with $13 million being cut from the headquarters budget.
The budgeting process this year, themed "schools-first budgeting," sought to restore the flexibility that schools have lost in their budgeting since 2009, by increasing the amount of money that principals can spend on programming and staff by $11 million.
Still, some schools are awaiting word if they will take other hits to their budgets. Federal funding, which includes Title I money that is given to schools with the poorest populations, is slated to decrease by about $15 million. At some Title I schools, the federal cuts are taking up to a $30,000 toll.
The school system hopes to use money it will save if the state is awarded a waiver from certain No Child Left Behind mandates. The waiver would allow it to drop a tutoring program, Supplemental Educational Services, that officials say costs a lot, but posts little results.