Pugh meets with state officials in search of Baltimore schools budget help

Baltimore public school supporters continue to push for a resolution to the historic budget shortfall.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said she met separately with Gov. Larry Hogan and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller this week to negotiate state aid to help close the city school system's $130 million budget deficit.

Pugh, a Democrat, said Wednesday that she left the meetings with the understanding that the Republican governor and Democratic leader of the state Senate were willing to help.

The mayor said she expects to use an unspecified amount of money from the city's rainy day account to help cover the shortfall. She has declined to say how much she is asking the state to contribute.

"I had a conversation with the governor, who is very supportive of what we've asked him to do," Pugh said. "I talked to the president of the Senate. ... He said we're going to get the support that the Baltimore City public schools need."

Miller's staff confirmed the conversation.

A spokesman for the governor said Hogan had a "very productive" meeting with Pugh.

Pugh and other city leaders are under pressure to address the gap in the schools' $1.35 billion operating budget, the biggest the system has faced in recent history. Officials have said the deficit could lead to more than 1,000 layoffs and larger class sizes.

City and state officials say they are working to develop a three-year plan to address the system's financial problems.

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said Wednesday she is looking for long-term cost savings and is putting together plans to maximize building usage and increase enrollment.

If the district can increase its 82,000-student enrollment, it can draw more state aid.

"I have said time and time again, I am not afraid of accountability," said Santelises, who has held the job for less than a year. "I would not be sitting in this seat if I were."

Santelises said the school system would be looking for ways to save money even if officials were not discussing whether to help fill the budget gap.

"That is how high-performing organizations do business," she said.

Santelises said she has been buoyed by the community outcry over the budget woes, which she said tells her "our community believes in our public schools."

Members of Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, or BUILD, handed Pugh a letter Wednesday morning that continued their call on the mayor and other officials to find a way to close the deficit.

Ronald J. Daniels, president of the Johns Hopkins University, also chimed in Wednesday. He said the institution's success is tied to Baltimore's schools.

Daniels said strong public schools help the university system recruit talent, provide a viable local jobs pool and produce future Hopkins students.

"I just want you to know we support you," Daniels told Pugh and Santelises at a public event. "I do hope the state will echo that and support your efforts. As a stakeholder, we have a very significant interest in seeing that happen."

Pugh said she expects to announce a school funding solution before March 20, the deadline for the House of Delegates to send its revision of Hogan's state budget proposal to the Senate.

"What I have said to everybody is: All hands on deck," Pugh said. "It is a structural deficit. ... If you don't reorganize and do some of the things that are necessary, your problems will continue. There is a deficit that we must cover to make sure that our teachers are employed, our classrooms have what they need."

Pugh said she has met with Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, to discuss how much extra money the mayor plans to dedicate to city schools.

"I've already met with the chair of appropriations for the House, and we were prepared to announce our number last week," Pugh told City Council members Monday at a luncheon. "But they asked us not to do that. So we did not do that. I'm tired of people calling my name about what I'm going to do."

Pugh emphasized that the Baltimore schools budget is roughly half the size of the city government's, which funds police, roads, parks, health and other services in addition to helping pay for education.

"We will help the school system," she said. "The city has a structural deficit. The state has a structural deficit. The United States of America has a structural deficit.

"They've got to fix their problems," she said of the schools.

Pugh asked the council to hold the school system accountable.

"Please bear with me as we go to Annapolis again and work to fix the structural deficit," Pugh said. "But don't just demand what we should do, demand of the school system what they should do.

"You pay the school CEO $285,000 a year to run the school system. Let's get it right. If you've got to downsize, you've got to downsize. You've got to figure it out. I'm not running the school system."

Santelises, who was hired on July 1, earns $298,000 a year.

The mayor, a former state senator who was elected in November, makes $176,000.

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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