Baltimore City schools CEO looks to deep staff cuts to close $130 million budget gap

Baltimore city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said Friday that she is prepared to lay off more than 1,000 people — from classroom teachers to custodians — to close a $130 million gap.

Meeting with the city's legislative delegation in Annapolis, she said the layoffs — as well as furloughs and cuts to art classes and other enrichment programs— are part of a far-reaching plan to close a budget shortfall that amounts to 10 percent of the school system's $1.3 billion budget.

She said some schools would see class sizes increase by as many as 10 students.

The lawmakers made clear they found such sweeping cuts troubling, but they did not suggest that there might be state money to prevent them. Maryland is dealing with its own $544 million budget gap, and both state and city officials suggested that the school district will have to make tough decisions.

"I knew it would be drastic," said. Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. "It's devastating and a product of real fiscal challenges city schools are facing."

Mayor Catherine Pugh declined through a spokesman to respond to questions for this article, but issued a written statement acknowledging the district's deep-rooted budget problems.

"Unfortunately the Baltimore City Public School System is forced to address a structural deficit, and I know that Dr. Santelises is using every resource available to her to address this situation," Pugh said.

Santelises, in her first year on the job, revealed last month the shortfall for the budget year that begins July 1. It's the largest budget gap the district has faced in recent history. Declining enrollment, rising teacher salaries and an ambitious school construction program have been cited as contributors to the problem.

"I'm not saying this is it, but I am saying that when push comes to shove, it's my job as the head of the school system to have a plan," Santelises said in outlining her cost-cutting proposals to The Baltimore Sun. "And this is the best plan I can give. Based on the trajectory we are on now, Baltimore city public schools will look drastically different on July 2."

The Baltimore Teachers Union demanded that state and city leaders take action.

"Our children cannot get the education they deserve with 1,000 fewer people working in the schools," union president Marietta English said in a statement Friday.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a former teacher, suggested state officials look to casino revenue to shore up the schools budget. Maryland casinos have pumped $1.7 billion into the state's Education Trust Fund, but state officials are allowed to redirect other money that once went to schools.

"The money is there to help us avoid this," Clarke said. She also expressed concern that layoffs would cause the newest teachers to lose their jobs. "We can't lay off the youngest new cadre of educators — the last in, first off — and deprive our children and those talented people of their future together," Clarke said.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young also called for "additional support from Governor Hogan and legislators in Annapolis."

Gov. Larry Hogan's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Outlining broadly her budget-cutting plan, Santelises said $80 million of the cuts would fall on individual schools. These schools will see a "dramatic increase in class size," she said, while others will have to sacrifice programs like career technology courses.

"This is going to hit everything kids love about coming to school," Santelises said. "We're talking about severe impact to school programming, which then impacts all of our efforts to try to recruit new families."

Most schools will have to lose staff, Santelises said, and some schools will have to target the highest earners for layoffs in order to recoup a significant amount of money.

In past years, when school officials announced a gap half this size, they avoided including teachers in staff cuts, which mostly affected non-classroom positions. Santelises said firmly that teachers will have to be included this time.

Furlough days and salary freezes would have to be negotiated with union employees, such as teachers and principals. Santelises said she is exploring freezing salaries and imposing up to five furlough days to capture up to $20 million.

Still, at neighborhood schools with fewer than 350 students, Santelises said, "it would be hard to operate."

The news was a blow to city educators.

Athanasia Kyriakakos, an art teacher at the Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, broke down when she heard of Santelises' plan.

"My class size is already at capacity, at 30 and 36 kids. What are they going to make it, 46 kids?" said Kyriakakos, who was named Maryland's teacher of the year. "I want my kids to succeed. I just had another student die the other day. I don't want them in the streets."

Baltimore City College principal Cindy Harcum was stoic. The school, with 1,300 students, has weathered past budget cuts and will endure this one, too, she said. "We've been able to roll through these punches before. It may mean there are some adjustments we have to make."

Santelises said she would look to the school system's central office for $10 million in savings by cutting each department by 10 percent to 15 percent.

That would mean decreased services to schools, such as cutting trash pickup from five times a week to two times a week and delaying maintenance projects.

The central office has been significantly reduced in the last decade as the district moved to decentralize services and give principals more autonomy. Santelises said there is a misperception that the central office is "bloated." She said that the roughly 1,000-person staff is below average compared to the district's urban peers.

Another $20 million would come from dipping into the district's reserve fund, which would require a waiver from the school board, and a hiring and spending freeze.

Meanwhile, the district will continue looking for ways to restructure at a time when the school system's population is declining by the hundreds, Santelises said. The city lost roughly $42 million in state funding this year, in part due to its declining enrollment. Enrollment stands at about 82,000 students.

Other financial pressures come from investments the city has made, such as expensive union contracts to increase the quality of educators, providing full-day pre-kindergarten — the state requires only half-day — and renovating dilapidated buildings, estimated at $38 million next year alone.

The system is renegotiating union contracts, closing small schools, working to attract new families and advocating for a new state funding formula that would allocate more funding for city schools.

Santelises said that tactics used to close budget gaps half this size in prior years, such as superficial funding cuts and paying for reoccurring expenses with one-time funding sources, did not work because they were not financially sustainable.

"This is a community conversation," Santelises said. "We have to decide collectively to what level we are going to educate the next generation of leaders in the city."

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

erica.green@baltsun.com

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