Rally held to urge city, state to help with $130 million schools budget gap

Crowd gathers at Inner Harbor Saturday to urge city, state to close $130 million city schools budget gap.

After reviewing options at private schools for her daughter, Tracy Hall chose to keep her enrolled in a Baltimore public school.

"They have great resources," the Canton resident said of Federal Hill Preparatory School, where her daughter, who has Asperger's syndrome, will benefit from full-time paraeducators and other staff to make sure she succeeds.

But she and other parents of city school students at an Inner Harbor rally Saturday said they're concerned about potentially devastating cuts because of a $130 million budget shortfall. Several hundred people attended the event held by Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance at Rash Field, urging Mayor Catherine Pugh and Gov. Larry Hogan to come up with the money.

"I'm terrified. I don't know what we would do" if resources to her daughter's school were cut, Hall said.

Several speakers — including City Council members, principals and students — spoke about how the funding would benefit not only Baltimore students, but also the city and state.

"This is money that is an investment in the future leaderships of our city, of our state, of our country and, frankly, of the world," city schools CEO Sonja Santelises told the crowd amid cheers and applause.

"I want you to know we are going to continue to push for what you deserve, and you should know that we are committed to pushing through for there to be full funding for Baltimore City public schools," Santelises said.

"Governor Hogan has provided for record K-12 education funding in each of his three budgets and it will always be a top priority of this administration," spokeswoman Shareese DeLeaver-Churchill said in a statement Saturday. "Baltimore City's per-pupil funding is nearly twice the state average and we look forward to working with Mayor Pugh and all city leadership to continue this support."

The governor has pointed to the fact that Baltimore is second only to Prince George's County in the amount of state education aid it receives. The city receives more than $12,000 per student, which is double the state average.

At the rally, several speakers referred to the governor's recent comments during a phone call to WBAL radio in which he said the city schools were an "absolute disaster" and the system had "no fiscal accountability."

Several advocates at Saturday's rally said the city and state should do more than just close the latest budget shortfall, and noted a recent audit that found the state should provide $387 million more annually to the city school system. Others criticized the city for spending more on the Police Department than on education.

Elizabeth Degi Mount, the executive director of Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance, said the decision to provide money to close the budget shortfall should be a no-brainer, not only to support education but also as an important investment in the growth of the city and state.

Degi Mount, whose organization works to keep families with children in the city, said the No. 1 reason families with children choose to move to neighboring jurisdictions is because they worry over the quality of education in city schools.

"We want to reverse the trend of middle-class flight" from the city, which will help build the tax base, she said. The health and growth of the overall city is important for the well-being of the rest of the state, she said.

"We have turned the ship. We cannot afford to go backwards," she said.

For city educators, the cuts would have a more immediate impact.

Guilford Elementary/Middle School Principal Brian Pluim said if the funding isn't found, he'll have to cut eight staff positions, including five teachers, which could cause classroom sizes to swell to 40 students. After-school programs could also be wiped out, he said.

In his eight years as a principal, Pluim said, he's never had to take such drastic measures. But Pluim said he was heartened to see so many supporters out in the blustery cold pushing for an alternative.

"I'm grateful they are pulling for students," he said.

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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