After enrollment in Baltimore public schools unexpectedly dropped following years of growth, officials are now bracing for nearly $30 million in funding cuts and investigating whether hundreds of students were mistakenly kept on the rolls.
City schools CEO Gregory Thornton said he launched the internal investigation into student rolls after he noticed discrepancies between attendance data and what he saw when he visited schools. He said he expected to find overcrowded classrooms — a common complaint from teachers — but often did not.
"It didn't add up," Thornton said, noting that students were on the rolls but weren't present. "Maybe they were just luckily absent that day, but it got to the point of having to have conversations about data integrity, because we can't build this organization on false numbers. They've got to be real."
Among some educators in city schools, the phenomenon has a name: "ghost students."
State funding for Baltimore public schools would decline by about $25 million under Gov. Larry Hogan's proposed budget because the student population dropped and other factors, including a formula that measures an area's wealth. City funding is expected to decline as much as $4 million in per-pupil funding.
District officials said they discovered "irregularities" and the extent of the problem — about 1,900 pupil slots will no longer be funded by taxpayers — when they took the annual student count Sept. 30. The district is required to report that number to the Maryland State Department of Education to help determine budgeting.
While fewer students were enrolled in Baltimore schools, officials also believe mistakes were made. For instance, they said teachers might not have taken attendance consistently. The number of students could have been incorrect because the city's computerized attendance program automatically defaults to "present," and teachers must manually note absences.
Principals also could have made mistakes when confirming student rosters before sending them to the central office, district officials said. They must determine whether students meet attendance and age requirements and other criteria to qualify for state and city funding.
School officials are still investigating why the student count was wrong — and for how long.
Union leaders representing teachers and principals said it is the district's responsibility to ensure that student rolls are correct when reported to the state. They also noted that educators have felt pressure from the central office to keep enrollment up — even if that meant keeping students on rosters when they were not attending school regularly.
The issue could have huge implications for one of the state's largest school districts, with nearly 85,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade and a $1.2 billion budget. The district has had years of budget problems, including an unforeseen deficit of $60 million that grew to $100 million last year, forcing the first layoffs in more than a decade.
The budget cuts "will drastically impact a number of activities we're actively pursuing, not the least of which is the 21st-century plan," said Marnell Cooper, chairman of the city school board, referring to a $1 billion plan to consolidate, renovate and rebuild schools.
Still, Cooper cast the discovery of the enrollment problem as the result of improved accountability in the district. He noted that the school closure and renovation plan is aimed at making the district more efficient by creating an infrastructure that matches enrollment and student needs.
"I can confirm that Dr. Thornton and his team found discrepancies, but as a result, our processes are better," he said. "I get [that] the initial shock will be painful, but at the same time, we are really trying to right-size this district."
Thornton, who has been CEO since July 2014, said that when district officials began closely examining the rolls last spring, they determined that about 230 students should have been withdrawn for that school year but were still being counted and funded.
When students returned in the fall, district officials began a more thorough review of the rolls. Each school district must count the number of students who meet funding criteria every year.
For instance, district officials said they found 864 students who did not meet the state's attendance requirement last fall, compared with 114 the year before. Among the criteria, students must be present one day in September and one day in October without 10 consecutive unexcused absences.
District officials also said they did not heed red flags. Hundreds of city students on the rolls had no grades or standardized test scores recorded for them, according to Theresa Jones, chief achievement and accountability officer. She said those students should have been flagged and removed from the list earlier.
"There were protocols that may have been in place that weren't followed through," she said.
Some teachers have referred in recent years to "ghost students" being on their rosters. District officials said they had not heard the term but continue to investigate.
Thornton declined to be more specific about what he called "irregularities" that officials found in past practices.
"I cannot speak to what took place; I can only vouch for what we have on the table today," he said. "You can deductively get to wherever you want to go."
This is not the first time the school district was found to have miscounted its student population. Two years ago, officials discovered the school system over-reported enrollment by 978 students, and the school system was forced to pay back $2.9 million to city government.
Officials at City Hall determined that it was an isolated incident, which resulted from a school official using a projected number of students when seeking city funding.
Tisha Edwards, who was interim city schools CEO at the time, said the incident proves the district had an "extraordinarily high" degree of accountability when it came to the student count used to determine funding.
She disputed the idea that the current problem stems from the way previous school administrations did business. Edwards served as interim CEO for one year until Thornton was selected for the job. She also served for four years as chief of staff for Andrés Alonso, who was CEO from 2009 to 2013.
"I would take issue with the challenge that we're having with enrollment to be categorized as an irregularity related to past practices," she said.
Edwards questioned whether the central office has the staff and resources needed to effectively track students — especially those who are truant — and to keep kids in school.
"I worry that those prior best practices and strategies were not fully executed during this transition," she said.
Alonso declined to comment.
This year's enrollment decline is by far the biggest since 2007, when the district stopped hemorrhaging students for the first time since enrollment peaked at 193,000 in 1969.
The district has reported gaining hundreds of new students since 2008, as it opened more charter schools and created more prekindergarten classrooms. Alonso's administration also made strides in bringing back students who had dropped out of school.
As part of those efforts, principals were required to prove they had tried to find and reach out to students before dropping them from the rolls.
While those efforts were lauded as successful, critics say they created added bureaucracy and a high-pressure environment.
Each principal's school budget is based on enrollment, and their success is gauged in part on graduation and dropout rates. Student attendance and performance also factor into teacher evaluations.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the principals union, said principals felt pressure under Alonso to keep students on the rolls even when they were not attending school.
"There should be clean rolls, but the blame falls on previous administrations," Gittings said. "And now a large number of schools will lose a drastic amount of funding that will impact Baltimore schoolchildren's education."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said members have complained about being encouraged to keep perpetually absent students on the rolls. That, she said, created a "Catch-22."
"We think something as simple as attendance-taking should not be complicated by political issues," she said.
District and union officials also noted that there is a broader problem — that city schools are failing to attract and retain students.
Fewer prekindergartners and kindergartners entered the system last fall. And middle-class families left the system at a higher rate last year, according to an analysis of students who withdrew last summer.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has promoted past enrollment gains and emphasizes that the city needs strong schools to meet her goal of increasing the city's overall population by 10,000 families.
"Any potential decline that also results in the loss of state funding is troubling, and we're going to try to find out more information," said Howard Libit, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake. "The mayor continues to believe that good schools are critical to growing the city. ... It's hopefully a one-year blip after a number of years of steady growth."
But state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who sits on the Budget and Taxation Committee, said the school system is on the wrong track. Ferguson worked in Alonso's administration.
"Unfortunately, we're seeing a common trend: declining test scores, operational miscues and now declining enrollment leading to another budget deficit," Ferguson said. "All of these objective measures of a school district's strength are headed in the wrong direction. It's becoming increasingly difficult to defend the school system in Annapolis but for the remarkable children and school communities who deserve champions.
"We need drastic change to right the ship."
School system enrollments are audited by the Maryland State Department of Education. The last one in the city covered 2011 and 2012, and the rolls were found to be accurate. A biennial audit is underway.
District officials said they usually learn whether they have to pay money back to the state when audits are done.
The state began requiring schools several years ago to give students a state identification number, similar to a driver's license or a Social Security number, when they enter school.
So the state now has the ability to check to ensure that a student is not enrolled in two schools or districts. The state regularly sorts the data by last and first names to see whether a student was inadvertently given two identification numbers.
Thornton said the district also is developing a new student information system and explicit guidelines to help ensure more accurate counts.
"We didn't keep kicking the can down the road," he said. "I inherited a methodology that was not effective, and we have stopped it."
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.