Baltimore education advocates pressure city to pitch in to avoid widespread layoffs in schools

Baltimore school advocates say the state and city both need to do more.

For weeks, education advocates have pushed state officials to increase funding for Baltimore's schools to help prevent widespread layoffs and close a $130 million budget shortfall.

Now, they are stepping up pressure on Baltimore's government as well — launching a telephone campaign to persuade Mayor Catherine Pugh to spend more money on education.

Activists called Pugh's office on what they dubbed "Fix it Friday," repeating a scripted message: "I am calling on the mayor to keep her campaign promise to substantially increase the city's funding for Baltimore's schools."

Sharicca Boldon, co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition, said the campaign is meant to emphasize that both city and state officials should contribute more. "They both have to step up," she said. "We're at a point where we cannot let Baltimore completely unravel. That's not good for the state. It's a shared responsibility.

"The state has to make a contribution and the city has to make a contribution."

Baltimore school officials have asked state and city lawmakers for $65 million to shrink the system's $130 million budget shortfall and help it avoid laying off more than 1,000 workers, including some teachers. The $130 million gap for the year that begins July 1 represents about 10 percent of the school system's budget.

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said this week that she has "no firm commitments" from the State House or City Hall.

The budget shortfall is being driven by several factors, including shrinking student enrollment and growing city property values. The two factor into a formula officials use to determine state aid.

The school system also faces long-term structural budget issues, such as higher-than-average teacher pay and the high costs of health care and pensions.

Education advocates say there's evidence to suggest that both the city and state should do more for Baltimore's school system, where nearly nine out of 10 students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

The state contributes more than $12,000 per pupil to Baltimore's schools — more than for any other jurisdiction.

Even so, a study by state legislative analysts in December concluded Baltimore schools were funded adequately in 2008, but now are funded at just 81 percent of their needs.

Amid budget struggles during the recession, the Democratic-controlled General Assembly reduced the potential amount a school system could receive from the state. The city schools now receive $290 million less each year than what lawmakers had previously agreed they needed, the study said.

In November, a consultant recommended to a General Assembly committee rewriting Maryland's school funding formula that the state should contribute $387 million more annually to the city's schools.

Conversely, education advocates believe that the city can do more to fund its local schools. City government contributes the third-lowest per pupil amount to its school system of any jurisdiction in Maryland. Baltimore contributes just $3,400 per student. Wealthy jurisdictions like Montgomery and Howard counties each contribute more than $10,000 per pupil.

Baltimore is also the only jurisdiction in the state that spends more on policing than schools. Last year, the city spent more than $250 million on schools, but more than $450 million on police.

During her mayoral campaign, Pugh pledged to increase the amount of money the city contributes to the school system. Her campaign website stated that her goal was to increase the city's contribution from 20 percent of the school budget to 35 percent over four years.

"I think we all need to do more," said City Councilman Zeke Cohen, the chairman of the council's education committee. "This shortfall represents a moral imperative for our city and our state. We have to decide: When we say we believe in our kids, do we actually believe in them?"

Pugh has not yet released her first budget as mayor, but is expected to do so next month. Cohen said he "hopes and believes the city will step up."

The administrations of Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, and Pugh, a Democrat, have said they are open to discussing increasing funding to help close the school system's budget gap. Leaders in the General Assembly have said they are working on the issue as well.

But both governments have their own budget problems. The city faces a $20 million shortfall next year and the state has a $544 million gap.

In an interview with WBAL radio Friday, Hogan touted the state's record spending on public schools.

"This is the third year in a row that we've had record funding for education," Hogan said. He acknowledged that state funding for schools is largely dictated by a formula set by the General Assembly.

"We provided 100 percent of the funding" dictated by that formula, Hogan said.

Pugh has said the city is "scraping its coffers" to help, and is asking businesses and charities to pitch in. A spokesman for her administration said city officials are working hard on the issue.

State Del. Curt Anderson, a Baltimore Democrat, said it's important politically that city government increases its contribution to schools.

"We've got to show them education is our top priority by putting our money where our mouth is," Anderson said. "The state is looking at us to make sure we fully believe what we're saying."

When the city schools faced a budget shortfall last year, both state and city governments increased funding. Hogan's administration contributed $12.7 million more, while former Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's administration added $10 million.

City school advocates are planing a rally in Annapolis at 6:30 p.m. Thursday to urge Maryland lawmakers to once again help fill the funding gap.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said the city schools also need to be proactive about fixing the system's structural budget issues.

The school budget deficit is not driven by mismanagement, he argued, but by policy choices, such as adding universal pre-kindergarten services. And the structural issue with school funding can be fixed if more families enroll their kids in Baltimore's schools, he said.

"All of our problems go away with increasing enrollment," he said. "The school system can raise its own money by enrolling more students. There needs to be a clear effort to market to and attract families."

Even so, Ferguson acknowledged that the pending budget gap needs an immediate fix to avoid widespread layoffs.

He said he was encouraged by what he's hearing from both Pugh's and Hogan's offices.

"The current mayor has been very engaged in this conversation and clearly indicated a commitment to coming up with solutions," Ferguson said. "To his credit the governor's office has said they are open to considering solutions. We have to come up with a plan in which everyone can find a win."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

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