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Baltimore city charter school leaders say funding falls short

Educators, parents raise concerns about Baltimore city schools proposed budget.

Baltimore city charter school leaders said the district's funding for their schools next year falls short, one concern raised during a public forum where advocates, parents and educators sounded off on city schools CEO Gregory Thornton's first budget.

During the forum Tuesday night, advocates also said that Thornton's cut of an elementary summer school reading program ignored research showing the program was beneficial for students at a critical time in their literacy development. The $4 million program, called Read to Succeed, was cut primarily because it had poor attendance.

But former school board member Kalman "Buzzy" Hettleman said Thornton and his team did not take into account the program's successes with helping young readers in years past, nor explored how to improve the model that could serve the population.

The National Summer Learning Association also testified to the program's success, and said it had qualitative analysis from this past year that the district could have considered.

"I believe that the board and the system can do better on this," Hettleman said. "I don't know of anything that has more research behind it, and it seems to have not been at all considered."

Thornton said he was interested in reviewing the summer learning research.

But the most contentious debate was about the city's charter schools, whose leaders told Thornton and the board that they reject the district's offer of $9,387 per-pupil next year, and that they calculate that it should be $10,010.

"We reject the per-pupil funding, and we so for one simple reason: the formula the district uses...does not align with the law," said Will McKenna, co-chair of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools.

At issue is the district's interpretation of the state's charter school law. The law funds charters through a formula that gives them cash in lieu of services that they don't get from the central office. The district funds traditional schools similarly, but after central office costs are deducted they receive a little more than $5,000 per-pupil.

The cash charters receive, McKenna said, "is vital to our existence. We are responsible for everything with that money." There are 34 charter schools in the city, serving 13,000 students.

If followed to the letter, the charter law would provide charters a cash amount the district couldn't afford. So for years, school officials and charters have negotiated around the charter law to reach a number that both could live with.

McKenna added that charter leaders agree that the funding formula has shortcomings, and that the district has promised for years to work with them to reach a new agreement. This year, he said, that promise fell short again.

"We have repeatedly acknowledged that there are issues, and would like to renegotiate this," McKenna said. "The district has been unwilling or unable to commit to and follow through on this work."

Given the district's unwillingness to come to the table, McKenna said, "the coalition will no longer accept something we know is wrong and were told would change."

Shanaysha Sauls, chair of the city school board, said she was concerned because the board was under the impression that Thornton's administration had been communicating and working out a deal with charters.  

"It sounds like we haven't met about anything of substance, or we're on different tracks," she said.

Board members asked what charters were willing to accept given budget constraints this year. McKenna said that every year the school system has indicated that limited funding is the reason it can't fully fund charters in accordance with the law.

He said that since 2010, the per-pupil expenditure in the school system increased by 10 percent, as a result of increasing general education revenue, while the per-pupil for charters has only increased by 4 percent.  At the same time salaries -- charters pay actual salaries while traditional schools pay average salaries -- have increased by 5 percent annually, he said. 

Charters have especially been hit harder by the new union contracts that pay "model teachers" and "transformational principals" hefty pay increases.

Thornton said that charters and the district are on "on multiple tracks, we have multiple agendas."  He indicated it was unlikely that the school system could pay more to charters this year.

"I don't think we're going to get to the number, to be very candid," Thornton said. "Based on the conversations I've had we don't have the capacity to do the build back."

In addition to charter school and summer school funding, the public expressed concerns about the unaddressed issues in Thornton's budget. The forum was the only one scheduled before the board is scheduled to adopt a balanced budget April 28.  

Parents said they failed to see how the budget supported improving conditions in traditional schools by addressing issues such as class size.

Educators said they didn't understand how Thornton was planning to cut teachers and then hire new ones in the summer. He said the district was only cutting teachers in the surplus pool who didn't have certifications in subjects where there are shortages.

And representatives of the community group BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development)  -- which has been instrumental in advocating and securing more state funding for city schools -- asked the board to delay its vote, saying the budget was confusing and Thornton's responsiveness to questions has been lacking throughout the process.

Thornton said at the end of the discussion that he believed everyone raised valid points.

"I don't think anyone's talked about anything wrong tonight. What they want is more for kids," he said.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

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