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City schools stabilize — can they grow?

In 2014, Baltimore City schools officials projected a $27.5 million budget deficit and contemplated a series of painful cuts, including hits to the district’s popular gifted and talented programs, before balancing the books with an infusion from the rainy day fund. In 2015, the system laid off 100 employees to cope with a $108 million budget deficit. Hundreds of students at Dunbar High held sit-ins to protest. In 2016, the district cut another 171 jobs, about 100 of them filled, to deal with another deficit. And last year, district CEO Sonja Santelises warned that none of the previous budget-cutting efforts had been enough to stave off a projected $130 million deficit for the 2017-2018 academic year. That acknowledgment of the system’s precarious finances prompted a strong grassroots effort to persuade the state and city governments to provide more funding — but it also caused no small amount of anxiety among parents about whether they could count on the system to provide their children with the kind of education they deserve.

For that reason, Ms. Santelises’ proposal this year of a $1.3 billion budget that not only includes no layoffs but actually adds positions in some key areas is a real shot of confidence. Ms. Santelises said last year that she wanted to develop a realistic plan that takes into account trends of declining enrollment and increasing expenses so that the district could escape from its yearly cycle of budget deficits. So far, so good. The academic initiatives she is funding, including literacy and social support workers in targeted schools and more resources for English language learners, are important in their own right, as they are tied to addressing problems that hinder students’ performance in the classroom. And the addition of more maintenance workers is welcome news after last winter’s debacle involving schools with broken heating systems. But what’s really important here is a glimmer of hope that Baltimore’s public schools could get past a state of seemingly perpetual crisis and at least create the possibility of growth and renewal.

It’s easy to forget amid the images of schoolkids shivering in their coats that Baltimore City schools are actually in the midst of an unprecedented construction spree. Four new schools opened this academic year, and five more are slated to come on line next year. In total, the 21st Century Schools initiative could result in as many as 28 new buildings over the next several years, providing the kind of facilities that attract young families. The district projects additional declines in enrollment for at least the next few years based on birth rates and past trends. But if the system can generate some enthusiasm around its new facilities, support for the arts and athletics (other Santelises administration priorities) and improved academic performance as a result of targeted initiatives in literacy and other areas, there’s reason to hope that the student body could grow again.

Still, it’s important to remember that the district’s stable finances are the result of what remains a temporary reprieve. District and city officials pushed last year for a three-year commitment of enhanced aid to provide a “bridge to Kirwan” — a reference to the Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, which is charged with recommending reforms to the state’s system of public education, including its formulas for allocating state funding. The assumption is that the commission will call for additional resources, particularly for district’s like Baltimore’s that have large numbers of poor and at-risk students. It may be another several months still until we get a price tag for the proposed reforms, but it seems altogether likely that the cost will exceed the $200 million Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly set aside this year as a down payment on Kirwan. Voters need to make sure candidates in November’s election provide a detailed explanation for how they will ensure stable and sufficient funding for education.

Baltimore continues to lose population as many of those who have a choice about where to live go elsewhere. Crime is a major reason for that, but so are the schools. This year’s fiscal stability is a welcome sign, but the system needs to be able to sustain it so that families can retain the confidence necessary for them to choose the city rather than the suburbs. For Baltimore to succeed, its schools must grow again.

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