City Council flexed muscles to secure Baltimore budget deal with Pugh

As hundreds of Baltimore students, teachers and activists gathered for a hearing on closing the school funding gap, the City Council's budget committee chairman had some news to share: A deal was done.

The council and Mayor Catherine Pugh had agreed to send more money to public schools and after-school programs, Councilman Eric T. Costello announced. The deal gave the City Council and the audience at the Baltimore War Memorial late Wednesday much of what they have pushed for.

It also marked an important moment in the still-emerging relationship between Pugh and the council, whose 15 members rallied around an objective — increasing school funding — and made political hay by speaking loudly and publicly about an ultimately tiny fraction of the city's $2.8 billion budget.

Roger Hartley, dean of the University of Baltimore College of Public Affairs, said the council showed it could exert its power in the face of a mayor who is — on paper, at least — much stronger.

"You have a young, new, energetic council with progressive roots, and they came out of the gate fighting for what they believe in," he said.

The $7.6 million deal includes cuts to some public works initiatives and funds from surplus to direct $3 million to the city's schools, $2.6 million to after-school and community school programs and $1.5 million to the Safe Streets anti-violence effort.

The budget proposed by Pugh for the fiscal year to begin July 1 included cuts to youth programs, which had received a boost after the unrest of 2015, and the school system laid off more than 100 employees to help close a $130 million budget gap.

The negotiations between the council's leaders and the mayor's team became contentious. The council approved a series of cuts to the mayor's proposal, culminating in a 15-0 vote on more than $26 million in reductions. Those votes were intended to show the mayor that the council was serious and unified about increasing school funding, members have said.

The budget cannot take effect without council approval. The council may cut the mayor's proposal, but it may not add or redirect spending without the mayor's consent.

The sides hammered out a deal late on Wednesday.

"We were really close for a while," Costello said. "We just needed to get over that hump at the end."

The budget still has to pass through several procedural steps, but is expected to be finalized Monday.

Karen Stokes, the mayor's chief lobbyist, said the direction from Pugh was to keep pushing ahead and look past theatrics in the council chamber.

"The mayor just told her team to stay positive, to stay collaborative and honestly to work through this," she said. "The time for speaking to the press is after this is done."

Pugh's strategy was markedly different from that pursued last year by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

Funding for after-school programs last year led to a bitter public debate. Rawlings-Blake took her case to the public, lining up media interviews to argue her side. In the end, she also agreed to increase funding for after-school programs.

The council gave up little in the negotiations with Pugh. A deal to spread $10 million in payments to city schools over three years brought down the cost of the deal, making it easier to compromise, Costello said.

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises told the council last week that the money would be used to train principals and their assistants in leadership and to fund a special initiative for middle-schoolers and a program to help parents and other community members support the education of children.

Zeke Cohen, the chairman of the Education and Youth Committee, said the council had been put to the test and acquitted itself well.

"I am so proud of our council for remaining united in the face of a very challenging budget negotiation," he said. "I think the council showed tremendous heart."

Council leaders said the deal will benefit young people in the city. Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said there were no losers in the negotiation.

"We worked with the mayor," he said on Wednesday. "I wouldn't say that we conceded, I wouldn't say the mayor conceded."

Not everyone shared the good feelings. Some leaders with the influential Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development said Pugh broke a promise she made while campaigning to leave the after-school programs untouched.

"We hope that breaking this promise does not set a precedent for her tenure as mayor," said Gwen Brown, an organizer of the group. "One thing that BUILD does do is hold people accountable."

A spokesman for Pugh said she was unavailable Thursday to comment.

The negotiations were a chance for the council to regain its footing after splitting on an effort to pass a $15 minimum wage. The measure passed, but Pugh vetoed it and three council members who originally voted in favor retreated in the face of an override vote.

Hartley said there is no guarantee that the council's unanimity will last. Working together on money for children is relatively easy, he said, but future challenges might be more divisive.

"The next tough issue might have different coalitions that cross different political boundaries," he said.

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