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City schools budget includes new academic endeavors

Baltimore school officials unveiled a $1.174 billion budget plan Tuesday, which they said focuses on academics with a new science team to implement curriculum, programs for advanced students and a shifting of staff in the central office.

Enrollment is projected to increase in traditional schools by about 2,500 students, causing per-pupil funding to decrease by $40 from last year to $5,190. The annual amount could change if the system doesn't see the projected increase in students.

And while charter school enrollment is declining, those schools would see a $139 per-pupil increase to $9,333 because the funding formula is tied to district revenue, which increased. The figure is higher for charter schools because they don't receive some district services.

"This is a budget that, bottom line, shows a very modest increase of revenue, but it continues the commitment to funding schools first," said Victor De La Paz, chief financial officer for the school system. "Schools are what we prioritize and allocate as much of our resources as possible."

Among the new academic endeavors, according to Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system, is a new science team at the central office. The team would help reform the district's science curriculum under rigorous "common core" standards, rolled out by the state this week.

The school system also plans to offer more programs for advanced students — a long-standing demand from parents of gifted students.

"This is a part of our budget that we're really excited about," Edwards said of the academic changes.

But the budget also notes challenges, officials said.

A decrease in federal funding of nearly 18 percent, or roughly $22 million, will affect schools with the district's poorest students.

The loss of federal Title I funding — supplemental money that goes to schools with the largest populations of students who receive free- and reduced-price meals — breaks down to a nearly $100 decrease per pupil in those schools.

Those schools, which make up the bulk of the district, would have to cut back on supplemental resources, such as support staff.

Student weights, additional funding that schools receive for certain groups such as special education students, mostly remained flat except at high schools, which are projected to receive $100 less per pupil.

School officials said feedback from principals makes them confident that schools would be able to absorb the financial hits.

"Are people overflowing with money? Maybe not," Edwards said. "But we believe people have what they need to meet academic needs."

But during a presentation to the school board Tuesday — the district's full budget will not be made public until May 1 — board members said the cuts would be felt.

"Any cut is going to have an impact," said Commissioner Jerrelle Francois.

Officials said they structured the budget around a new theme of "schools-first funding," which started last year by determining what schools would need to sustain their current staffing structures.

While the central office plans to cut consultants, temporary employees and supplies, its overall budget would increase by nearly $4 million because of rising expenses such as benefits and the cost of student transportation.

"Every office made sacrifices," De La Paz said.

And with the loss of grant funding, such as federal Race to the Top and stimulus money, the district will have to decide whether some positions, like those created to help implement the Baltimore Teachers Union contract, are necessary.

Other positions at the central office level, primarily employees in the chief academic office, will become grant-funded as the district takes on the new academic endeavors.

A project manager for the 10-year facilities plan, which will overhaul the school system's dilapidated infrastructure, would be added to the academic office. The district also plans to add a new director of school climate.

Two public hearings are scheduled for April 30 and May 7. The board is scheduled to vote to adopt the budget May 14.

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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