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Baltimore school system projects future deficits, plans to increase student recruitment

Baltimore public school officials are projecting future deficits as large as $30 million a year by 2020, but they are intensifying efforts to recruit and retain more students to avoid losing state funding.

In a “Financial Recovery Plan” submitted Tuesday to state lawmakers, school district administrators laid out plans to improve the system’s financial standing even as student enrollment steadily declines. Baltimore’s schools have lost funding in recent years in part due to a state formula that awards more money to systems with more students.

“While the issues facing Baltimore City Public Schools are many, the district can and must meet these challenges,” school board chairwoman Cheryl Casciani and schools CEO Sonja Santelises wrote in the 49-page plan.

Santelises announced earlier this year that the school system was facing a $130 million budget deficit. State and city officials stepped in to help, pledging $180 million more for the schools over the next three years. In doing so, state officials required school administrators to submit a plan for how they would address fiscal problems going forward.

School officials said the financial assistance from the city and state wasn’t enough to cover all of the system’s projected expenses in future years. They projected a $10 million deficit in 2019 that they expected to grow to $30 million by 2020.

Student enrollment in city schools fell in three out of the last four years. The report states that trend is expected to continue.

“New federal estimates show Baltimore City’s overall population falling to a near 100-year low,” the report states. “Given the smaller birth cohorts, we estimate a continued decline in enrollment that is likely to be over and above the trend we have seen in recent years.”

To counteract these projections, city school officials say they are working hard to try to get more parents to enroll their children in Baltimore’s schools.

School officials and the teachers union began a door-knocking campaign this summer to promote neighborhood schools. They focused on filling pre-kindergarten seats, winning back students from private schools and recruiting dropouts.

City Councilman Zeke Cohen, a former teacher who is chairman of the council’s education committee, said city officials can do a better job promoting the school systems’ successes. Baltimore City College graduates, for instance, were accepted into Harvard and Yale this year.

Some parents moved out of the city to send their children to suburban public schools, or sent their children to private school, without ever considering that Baltimore’s schools might be a good option, he noted.

“We all need to do more to lift up the good work that’s happening at city schools,” Cohen said. “One of my former students is headed off to Stanford and that’s a story we need to tell because so many children in Baltimore are doing heroic work and we need to continue to support them and tell that story.”

School officials said they’re working to improve education in the schools as well. Santelises said she’s instituting a number of initiatives including placing Montessori programs popular with many parents in some schools, and opening the first four new and renovated schools in Baltimore under a $1 billion school construction program.

The report also details the personnel cuts already made in the city schools. Between fiscal year 2015 and 2018, staff has decreased by nearly 9 percent. And this year 115 were laid off, including 13 classroom teachers and 24 assistant principals. It was the first teachers layoffs in a decade.

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat, said city school officials have made deep cuts to the schools already and now need to focus on growing enrollment.

“Fundamentally, the financial recovery plan needs to focus on increasing enrollment. That is accomplished by providing high quality education for families,” he said. “There has been a substantial amount of cutting. It is clear to me that additional cuts would have a detrimental impact on student achievement.”

He said the plan did represent “good news” in that it shows “there’s strong financial management being put forth and a solid plan.”

School officials also are counting on more robust state funding coming in fiscal year 2021 after a state school funding task force called the Kirwan Commission finishes its work. The commission’s work is expected to result in Baltimore receiving increased state aid for education.

Last November, a consultant recommended to the commission that the state should contribute $387 million more annually to Baltimore schools.

Doug Mayer, spokesman for Gov. Larry Hogan, said the administration received the report Tuesday and is reviewing it.

“We thank the city leadership for their work on this important issue,” he said.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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