Baltimore schools budget: Literacy coaches for high need schools, no layoffs

A year after a massive budget shortfall forced the Baltimore city school district to lay off 115 people — including the first classroom teachers to lose their jobs in a decade — this year’s $1.3 billion proposed budget does not call for layoffs.

In fact, the system is creating more than 50 positions, with most going toward the superintendent’s signature initiative that will provide literacy coaches and social support workers to select high-need schools.

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises unveiled the budget plans Tuesday. It’s a proposal that largely maintains the status quo after last year’s budget crisis.

“We were able to stabilize,” Santelises said in an interview Tuesday, “and during that process, we had to prioritize.”

Though the budget doesn’t call for layoffs, it also doesn’t contain many of the more flashy initiatives that her predecessors occasionally could afford to sprinkle into their budgets.

Rather, the proposal is aimed at steadying the school system after last year’s tumultuous budget season. Santelises announced last school year that the district faced a $130 million shortfall and the threat of up to 1,000 layoffs. City and state officials responded by rallying to secure an additional $180 million for Baltimore schools, to be doled out over three years. The extra money helped bring the final number of layoffs down to 115.

The school board plans to vote on the budget May 8, after a series of community meetings to get feedback on the proposal.

Despite a smoother budget process this year, city school officials say the district continues to struggle with chronic underfunding, and is stuck waiting for the delayed recommendations of a state commission charged with revamping spending on Maryland public schools. Baltimore schools need an estimated $290 million more a year, according to a state report.

The bulk of the added positions — about 40 — will go to staffing Santelises’ signature initiative, the “City Schools’ Blueprint for Success.” The blueprint identifies priority areas for school improvement, including literacy and student “wholeness.”

Twenty schools will receive a “literacy coach” to work with students on strengthening their reading and writing skills. Another 20 will get a “student wholeness associate” trained to support social and emotional learning.

“In the midst of everything we went through last year,” Santelises said, “we’ve taken on the charge to really fund our priorities and fund the things we know are going to make a real difference in schools.”

Johnston Square Elementary is one of the schools identified as an “intensive learning site” devoted to student wholeness. Principal Raymond Braxton said the extra staff member next year will run a reflection room, where students can go if they need to cool down or vent.

He said he wouldn’t have been able to afford a staff position for such a program without funding from the central office.

“Our resources here are limited,” Braxton said. “Getting this additional support from the district is an awesome thing that’s desperately needed. It’s going to be transformative for the school.”

The budget also funds 16 more positions in the operations department, concentrating on heating and other maintenance issues. This boost comes a few months after unrelenting cold weather exposed infrastructure problems in some of the city’s oldest school buildings. Pictures of children huddling in 30-degree classrooms wearing parkas sparked widespread outrage, and calls for school officials to do better.

With the added positions, the ratio of maintenance workers per school building drops dramatically — from one worker for every 18 schools to one for every six, Santelises said.

“The years of constantly reducing the number of folks, combined with the age of our school buildings, we just can’t do it anymore,” she said.

The budget proposal also provides about $4 million in additional resources for students from immigrant families, who are the fastest-growing population in a district struggling to retain children. The extra money will go toward hiring more teachers for students who are learning English.

Some of the funding for the new positions comes from the district’s closing a handful of schools, as well as leaving certain vacancies unfilled.

Individual schools still may chose to eliminate some staff positions if enrollment declines, and some teachers will have to be shifted around based on school-level budget changes.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta A. English said that she hopes any teachers whose positions would be eliminated are chosen for the newly created positions. Their “expertise would benefit the implementation of the Blueprint for Success tremendously,” English said in a statement.

Digital Harbor High School, for example, is looking at losing roughly $1 million after a projected 137-student drop in enrollment, according to the district’s budget presentation.

Charter schools will lose money under the budget proposal, moving from $9,288 per pupil last year to $9,017 for the coming year. Meanwhile, traditional schools’ per-pupil allotment go up — from $5,416 to $5,521 per student. Charters receive more money per pupil because they don't receive the same level of services from the central office as traditional schools do.

The district remains locked in a lawsuit against a group of charter school operators who argue that the district has failed to meet its contractual obligations to charters and has not been transparent or consistent in the way it allocates funding to these schools.

A new funding formula also will mean more money for some schools, particularly elementary and middle schools in neighborhoods plagued by concentrated poverty.

trichman@baltsun.com

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