Don't panic over Baltimore schools budget

Op-ed: Breaking down Baltimore's schools budget and why it's always so off in funding.

Baltimore City Public Schools principals recently received their first look at the budget cuts they are potentially facing due to the $129 million deficit forecast for next year. I have watched with professional interest as this process has played out repeatedly in recent years, but this year, I have a personal stake.

Last August, my husband and I walked our daughter two blocks to our neighborhood public school for her first day of Kindergarten. Not only is she getting a great education there, she is part of a community of wonderful kids and committed parents. Joining this school community has made us love living in Baltimore even more.

For those of us with children in city schools, and for those joining us in advocating for equitable funding for them, the news that we are facing a $129 million deficit is disheartening. As I've listened to other parents on the playground, it's clear that many of us have the same question: "Why does this keep happening?"

A few basic facts might help us move beyond the sticker shock, so that we can finally, as a community, come up with a long-term solution to the school system's funding woes.

First, our schools are operating under a balanced budget this year. But in planning for next year, financial projections take into account an enrollment decline, cost increases, a flat contribution from city government, and a decline in state funding. This deficit is prospective, and there is time to fix it.

Second, the deficit is not a function of fiscal mismanagement. Thanks to the transparency that schools CEO Sonja Santelises has brought to budgeting, we now understand better why this happens every year. A structural deficit has been building for years, and each year, our leaders have cobbled together one-time fixes. The structural nature of this deficit has to do with rising costs resulting from needed investments, such as the modernization of our aging school facilities, and conscious decisions, such as the landmark teacher contract signed years ago. Meanwhile, funding has remained flat or declined and general operating expenses have risen (anyone who works in human resources understands the rising cost of benefits). Proposed 2018 per pupil funding from the state is actually the same as it was in 2009.

Third, enrollment declines compound the problem. The state's per-pupil allocation has not only remained flat, we are now multiplying it by fewer students. The system has a plan to address excess facility space by rebuilding some schools and closing others, but it takes time and costs money to build new facilities.

So, what are we parents to do? First, I encourage everyone to attend a Parent-Teacher Organization meeting at your local school, even if you don't have a child enrolled. If your school is anything like ours, what is going on inside will inspire you and give some healthy perspective to the frustration we rightly feel when facing such a large deficit.

Second, remember that the $129 million deficit is a worst-case scenario. It would be irresponsible for city schools' leadership to plan for more than what the formulas currently project for next year. Rather than a sign of fiscal mismanagement, Ms. Santelises' transparency about this structural deficit demonstrates that she intends to live within the means allocated to the system, while advocating for a more equitable funding formula going forward.

Third, parents across the city are organizing to get the resources our children deserve for an equitable education. It is more than likely that the General Assembly and city leaders will provide non-recurring supplemental appropriations (of what magnitude is an open question). But what we city parents really want and must demand is that our state and local partners work together not just to cobble together another one-time fix, but to solve the structural challenge. Later this year, the Kirwan Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education will make recommendations for legislative and policy changes to ensure the state meets its constitutional obligation to provide "adequate and equitable" education funding. It is essential that the new formula take into account the needs of the students that our system serves, many of whom live in extreme poverty.

Finally, a word of encouragement to parents, whether your child is enrolled in city schools or you have yet to make a school decision — do not panic. Our schools will no doubt see some cuts next year, but this has not scared us away from public education. We know that our daughter will still be in class with wonderfully diverse, inquisitive and bright young students, supported and taught by a loving and talented staff. And we will be there with our fellow parents, advocating for an equitable funding formula to provide an outstanding education to every child in Baltimore City.

Laurie Latuda Kinkel is the program officer of the Goldseker Foundation and the parent of a Kindergartner at Francis Scott Key Elementary Middle School. Her email is laurie@goldsekerfoundation.org.

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