Pugh seeks help from Maryland as Baltimore principals rally against deep school budget cuts

Baltimore's mayor said the city and state will work together to solve the schools budget gap.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh went to Annapolis again Monday to ask the state to help city schools close a $130 million budget gap.

Back in Baltimore, principals, preachers and other advocates for the schools expressed disappointment that she didn't have more of a plan.

"We appreciate that she is fighting for our schools, but I think time is a factor in all this," said Nicholas D'Ambrosio, principal of Roland Park Elementary School. "We can't wait. Families need to know. Schools need to know."

Pugh had told a cheering crowd of 2,000 students, parents and advocates last week to expect an "announcement" Monday about her plans to help close the Baltimore school system's budget gap.

"On Monday, you're going to hear an announcement about what we're going to do to increase funding for the Baltimore City public schools," she said.

But on Monday — flanked by city schools CEO Sonja Santelises and Baltimore's state lawmakers — Pugh said only that officials were continuing to work on a plan to close the gap.

"We come here to Annapolis to say 'We need help,'" Pugh said.

The looming city schools deficit, which officials say could force more than 1,000 layoffs and lead to ballooning class sizes, is presenting a budgetary conundrum for Pugh, who ran on a platform of increasing school funding but faces the historic school budget deficit and a city budget shortfall of $20 million.

As advocates for schools rallied at City Hall on Monday for more funding, Pugh stood at a news conference in Annapolis with Baltimore's leaders in the General Assembly. They told reporters they were asking for a three-year commitment from Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to help fix the city schools' structural funding problems.

"We need our governor to be there with us," said Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee. She noted that Hogan provided extra funding to some local school districts last year.

"We need our governor to do what he did last year, and we thank him," McIntosh said. "He came up with the money for not only Baltimore City but other jurisdictions."

As lawmakers called for more state money, Pugh rankled education advocates by not addressing whether the city would contribute more to close the largest school budget gap in recent history. Of the cuts proposed by the system, 80 percent would fall on individual schools and teachers.

"I am incredibly underwhelmed by the announcement," said Melissa Schober, a parent and advocate who was among the 2,000 at last week's rally in Annapolis. "To say, 'I have a plan to make a plan,' that's frustrating. I'm real tired of the mayor and governor playing chicken with my kid and 82,000 other kids."

Fifty principals from schools across the city rallied outside City Hall on Monday afternoon chanting, "We can't wait! We can't wait!"

Surrounded by a cheering crowd of teachers and parents, the principals brandished budgets that revealed cuts of $227,038 from Matthew A. Henson Elementary School, $924,498 from Mount Washington School and $1.6 million from Roland Park Elementary-Middle School.

The lingering uncertainty is damaging morale at schools across the city, said Christopher Battaglia, principal of Benjamin Franklin High School at Masonville Cove in Curtis Bay. He said some teachers are considering jobs elsewhere in anticipation of the cuts.

"We have quality teachers who have been sitting and waiting and waiting," he said. "I got to put together a staff and I can't … I literally am blind until somebody gives me some clarity."

City Council members stood with principals at the rally, organized by the interfaith organization Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development.

"Enough is enough," said the Rev. Glenna Huber, an Episcopal priest and organizer with BUILD. "Bankrupt schools equal bankrupt children."

Speakers challenged Hogan and Pugh to pledge more money to the schools and close the budget deficit.

Principal David Guzman of Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in West Baltimore said a cut of $227,038 next year would mean the school would lose a teacher, and class sizes for kindergarten and first grade would jump from about 22 to 35 students.

"That's where we see the largest-impact years when it comes to literacy," Guzman said.

A spokeswoman for Hogan said the governor has provided "record K-12 education funding in each of his three budgets and it will always be a top priority of this administration."

Spokeswoman Amelia Chasse noted that Baltimore City receives the second-greatest amount of money in the state, after Prince George's County, in direct education aid. Maryland's contribution of more than $12,000 per pupil to Baltimore's schools is nearly double the state average.

"Going forward, we look forward to working with Mayor Pugh and all city leadership to continue this support," Chasse said in a statement.

The city schools' budget shortfall is driven by several factors, including shrinking student enrollment — the district expects to lose nearly 1,000 students next year — and growing city property values. The two factor into a formula officials use to determine state aid.

The system also faces long-term structural budget issues, such as greater-than-average teacher pay and the high costs of health care and pensions.

To close the funding gap, school officials have sought more money from the state and city to shore up their budget for next school year, but officials say they will also have to make deep cuts and lay off employees, including many teachers. Some $80 million of the proposed cuts would be spread across the city's schools.

Education advocates say the city and state both should do more for Baltimore's school system, where nearly nine out of 10 students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

In November, a consultant to a state commission on school funding said the state should contribute $387 million more annually to the city's schools.

Education advocates believe the city also can do more to fund its local schools. Baltimore contributes the third-lowest amount per pupil to its school system among jurisdictions in Maryland.

Baltimore is the only jurisdiction in the state that spends more on policing than schools. Last year, the city spent more than $265 million on schools, but more than $450 million on police.

During her mayoral campaign, Pugh pledged to increase the amount of money the city contributes to the school system. She said her goal was to increase the city's contribution from 20 percent of the school budget to 35 percent over four years.

Several members of the City Council said Monday they will look to make cuts to city agencies to help free up money for schools.

"I'm ready to cut whatever we need to cut," said City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young. "I want to hear what her plan is and go from there."

Young said he knew advocates would be "disappointed" by the lack of a hard commitment from Pugh, but said they should "give her an opportunity and a chance."

"They need to give her an opportunity to find this money and I think she'll find it. We're going to try to help her find it," Young said.

In Annapolis, Pugh said there was no agreement on what the city and state would contribute.

"We have not heard yet what the governor's commitment is going to be," she said.

Pugh said she has been in constant communication with the governor's team and discussed the issue with Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., a former legislator from Baltimore and a senior adviser to Hogan, over the weekend.

The mayor said she had received assurances from the governor that he wants to help the city schools.

"We have children who have been lead-poisoned for decades," Pugh said. "We require more. We have greater problems in Baltimore."

Santelises, who joined the mayor on Lawyers Mall outside the State House, tied the plan to the new statewide education funding formula being created by the commission headed by former University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. "Brit" Kirwan. The new formula is expected to replace the Thornton formula, which has guided the state's education funding since 2002.

"This is a three-year challenge," Santelises said.

McIntosh said one place the city needs to look for help is the teachers union. The veteran lawmaker said she expects there to be language in the budget dealing with the escalating cost of retired school employees' health care.

McIntosh said the city, state legislators and the governor have roughly three weeks to come up with a solution while the state budget makes its way through the legislative process.

Mitchell, a Democratic former delegate who serves as Hogan's liaison to the city, said the governor won't necessarily go along with that timetable. But he said Hogan and Pugh are keeping up a constructive dialogue.

Mitchell said Santelises spoke with state Budget Secretary David R. Brinkley last week.

"The conversation has been very open and frank regarding the structural deficit and the city's needs," Mitchell said. "The governor's going to continue to talk with the city and the city delegation to look at a solution."

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