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City school board votes to fully fund gifted programs

The Baltimore school board voted Tuesday to fully fund programs for gifted students, which were originally slated for cuts next year, and to tap its rainy-day fund to avoid layoffs and cuts to central office operations.

The board voted 7-2 to adopt the $1.3 billion budget, which restores more than $30,000 in funding cuts to the International Baccalaureate programs at City College and the Mount Washington School.

The system will also maintain the same amount of funding as last year for another gifted program, the Ingenuity Project, which has seen reduced financing from the district in recent years and still cannot accommodate the number of students eligible for the program.

The planned cuts to the International Baccalaureate and Ingenuity programs led political leaders and students to confront the school board in the lead-up to its vote and sparked a discussion about investing in the system's advanced students.

Interim schools CEO Tisha Edwards said the budget "reflects the feedback that we've received over the past couple of months."

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who urged that funding be restored for Mount Washington's IB program, said he believed the district understood the importance of the advanced programs and the role they play in the city's public education system.

"It's a very good sign for the system that several years ago the focus was on dropouts and this time around the focus is on our highest-performing students and what we need to do to attract and retain them," said Rosenberg, a City College graduate.

Other city leaders praised the board's vote.

City Councilman Bill Henry, who co-sponsored a resolution to fully fund the advanced programs, said he was pleased to hear that the district found the money to back the programs.

Still, he said there were 300 eligible students for 180 slots in Ingenuity, indicating a need for a more robust and long-term funding plan. The program is funded by the school system, private organizations and fundraising efforts, but the district's contributions have fallen from $420,000 in 2010 to $368,000 this year.

"I'm glad they've found a way to make the programs whole next year, and I look forward to finding a more sustainable way of funding the programs going forward," Henry said.

Students and alumni from Polytechnic Institute and City gathered for a rally at central headquarters before the vote. A petition to support the IB and Ingenuity programs garnered more than 800 signatures from the schools.

Erica Puentes, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park and a City College graduate, helped organize the rally and petition and said she hopes that the board understands the difference the programs have made in students' lives.

"It's opened my eyes to a lot of different things. Otherwise, I would still be stuck in West Baltimore, not knowing what was going on in the world around me," Puentes said of City's International Baccalaureate program. "It got me into college."

The board's discussions also noted budget forecasts that will require the district to plug future deficits and raised questions about whether the district's funding formula — which funds schools based on projected enrollment — is sustainable.

Next year's budget allocates $5,336 per pupil, an increase of $146. But school officials acknowledged that the increase was primarily to fund teacher salary increases.

Schools will receive "weights," or extra funding, for students with certain characteristics, such as $641 for students with disabilities and $1,000 for those who score "advanced" on the Maryland School Assessments.

Charter schools, which are funded based on a state law that gives them cash in lieu of services that other schools receive, will get $9,299 per pupil, $151 less than last year. Principals have called for a forum to discuss how charter and traditional schools are funded in an effort to seek a more equitable method.

The district's budget started with a $27.5 million gap, which had raised concerns about possible layoffs and required the board to face dipping into its rainy-day fund to pay for programs such as Ingenuity. But members questioned whether the board should fund recurring costs with emergency funds.

Officials said the rainy-day funds will be used for central office operations, such as rolling out the science and social studies curriculum and facilities maintenance.

School board member Lisa Akchin, who along with David Stone voted against the budget, said she believed that it was a "responsible and responsive budget," but didn't do enough to prepare for future budget challenges.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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