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Baltimore schools CEO: No commitments yet from State House, City Hall to close funding gap

Baltimore schools official in budget crisis: "We held our schools harmless for as long as possible."

Baltimore school officials have asked state and city lawmakers for $65 million to shrink their $130 million budget deficit and help them avoid laying off more than 1,000 workers.

But schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she has "no firm commitments" from the State House or City Hall. And even with the money, Santelises said, the district wouldn't escape the cuts to teachers and schools that officials mostly avoided when faced with budget shortfalls in recent years.

The lingering question is just how deep the cuts will be.

"We held our schools harmless for as long as possible," Santelises told the school board Tuesday night. She said that the budget deficit was "not a surprise" and that she was quick to tell city and state officials of its potential impact.

About 180 principals gathered last week for a glimpse of their schools under the fiscal belt-tightening. The funding per student at traditional schools would plunge by $1,093, or nearly 20 percent from last year. Funding at charter schools would drop $494 per student, or 5 percent.

Charter schools would receive $8,778 per student. Traditional schools would receive $4,585. Charter schools receive more in part because the district's central office doesn't provide them with services such as meals and busing.

"It was a difficult meeting, to say the least," Santelises said. "Every school in the district experienced a decrease in funding, and to some it was extreme."

The principals have begun crafting budgets for their schools based on the cuts.

Parent organizers at Medfield Heights Elementary in North Baltimore sent a notice to families saying their school faced a cut of at least $300,000. Roland Park Elementary Middle School, nearly three times larger, is looking at a cut of more than $1 million, Spanish teacher Kimberly Mooney said.

Mooney said the school district should be asking officials for $130 million, no less.

"I would like to hear a lot more from the district about what they are asking, so that parents and students and teachers can stand together and rally behind them," she said. "We're all in this together."

School officials pointed out Wednesday that consultants commissioned by the state found last year the district needs $358 million more per year to be adequately funded.

"In that light, it is remarkable that our budget gap this year is not even greater," officials said in a statement.

They said the state must overhaul its funding formula, which allocates aid to school districts based in part on the jurisdiction's property values and student enrollment. The formula has cost the district millions of dollars in recent years, in part because not all of the new developments that have driven up the city's property values are paying full taxes.

Enrollment has also declined.

City schools anticipate a $42 million cut in state aid in next year's budget.

"We are seeking a multi-year commitment for increased revenue that will help us bridge budget gaps until the new state funding formula is in place," school officials said.

City and state lawmakers have offered support for Santelises, but haven't committed publicly to providing more money.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said the Republican has not received an official request from the schools for money, but is open to discussion.

"Governor Hogan has provided record funding for education for three years in a row, and it will continue to be a focus of the administration," spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said.

Democratic Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has said the city is "scraping its coffers" to help, and is asking businesses and charities to pitch in.

"Are we out there now trying to make sure we close this budget gap? Absolutely," Pugh told The Baltimore Sun in a recent interview. She said she has asked business and philanthropic leaders to "think about assisting us over the next two or three years."

The mayor said on WYPR Tuesday that she has traveled to Annapolis to ask for more money.

Pugh said she also wants to ensure that the city's contributions to young people outside of school funding aren't overlooked. This year, the city is launching an $11 million youth fund to pay for programs for children and teens. The city also contributes money to privately run after-school programs, such as the Family League.

State Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he's spoken to Santelises about the budget deficit. He said he found her to be a "lovely person, very engaged," but did not commit to seeking more money for city schools. The state is addressing a $544 million gap in its own budget.

"Before the General Assembly is going to come up with more funds, she's going to have to demonstrate to the chief executive and the budget committees ... what adjustments she's making," the Democrat said.

State House Speaker Michael E. Busch said budget leaders were "scrubbing" requests from Baltimore for more school funding, but no decisions had been made.

"The question of whether it's going to be sixty-five million or not is up for debate," the Democrat said. "We certainly understand the challenge of the Baltimore City schools."

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said the Republican caucus supports helping kids in the classroom, but "this is a problem with management."

Kipke said he would not back extra money for city schools unless it was tied to a plan to fix the city's chronic budget problems and deal with systemic shortfalls caused by declining enrollment.

Santelises, in her first year as schools CEO, revealed in December the $130 million shortfall for the budget year that begins July 1.

It's the largest budget gap the district has faced in recent history. School officials have cited declining enrollment, rising teacher salaries, an ambitious school construction program and pre-kindergarten as contributors to the deficit.

Enrollment stands at about 82,000 students. The district expects to lose nearly 1,000 next year.

By July, school officials say, state funding for the district will have fallen $79 million over four fiscal years. The city's contributions will have edged up by $13 million over those years.

City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young said city officials are trying to help the schools, but noted the city is facing a $20 million deficit of its own.

To save money, city officials in recent years have cut contributions to pension and health care benefits for employees and retirees. Young suggested the school system undergo a city audit and merge some functions, such as IT and payroll, with city government.

"The school system needs to do what they can to close the budget gap," he said. "They need to be talking with the unions and doing some of the things the city did to cut costs.

"I've been a person that's been very outspoken that we need to give more to the school system. But I don't want to put money in a cup that's leaking."

Young suggested the state and federal governments should pitch in more, too.

"We've done a number of things to help the school system," Young said. "We pay for the crossing guards and nurses. Can we do more? Yes. I don't know how much we can do. I'm going to work with the administration to try to come up with something."

The $130 million deficit amounts to 10 percent of the school system's $1.3 billion budget. Santelises has said furloughs, layoffs, cuts to art classes and other enrichment programs are being considered to close the gap.

Santelises has said she would look to the school system's central office for $10 million in savings by cutting spending within each department by 10 percent to 15 percent. But cuts to the central office alone can't close the gap, she has said, and $80 million would be taken from schools.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings said it would be "tough" for lawmakers to approve more money for city schools.

"You get frustrated on one hand because the city's not managing their funds and we're always bailing them out," he said.

Jennings said legislators are "caught between a rock and a hard place."

"You want to hold the city accountable," he said, "but you don't want to penalize the children."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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The Baltimore Education Coalition plans to rally for more school funding at 6 p.m. Feb. 23 outside the State House in Annapolis.

Baltimore schools have also scheduled a series of townhall meetings on the budget. The meetings run from 6 to 8 p.m.

•March 13 at Frederick Douglass High School

•March 15 at Baltimore City College

•April 3 at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

•April 5, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Edmondson-Westside High School

•April 6 at New Era Academy

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