Balancing Baltimore's school budget on the backs of educators

Op-ed: We are giving city students a tired, broken stump and asking them to climb a tree.

Earlier this month, I met with a Baltimore City principal just hours after she'd spoken to her staff about the looming district budget cuts — a $129 million deficit likely translates to 1,000 school-based layoffs and could balloon already large class sizes by an average of 10 students.

That principal is one of the best and longest serving in the city — and her students' test scores show it — but each year she's had to be even more creative, do more with less. She already reduced the librarian role to a half-time position and cut the art teacher and a custodian. Next year, she'll likely lose music and P.E. and even then, a few more teachers.

Speaking with a teacher at another top-performing elementary school, she rattles off just a few of the programs that her principal says will be cut next year: Playworks, a structured recess program promoting social-emotional learning, Experience Corps and Reading Partners, both classroom-based tutoring programs. Huge losses, but even if they scrap those, teachers will still be cut.

Since becoming a parent, I have thought often of Shel Silverstein's "The Giving Tree" — a story about sacrifice and unconditional love. The tree gives first its apples, then its branches, then its trunk, until finally nothing remains but a weary stump. Often that metaphor can feel like the lived reality of many parents. But this week, I'm thinking about it in terms of Baltimore's principals, teachers and staff who, year after year, are asked to give everything they have, first with one arm tied behind their backs, then both, then blindfolded. Yet they are still expected to give their students everything young people deserve, everything they need to excel in life. For our students, that doesn't just mean art and music; unfortunately that means a wide array of informed care and interventions to manage and navigate daily traumas or the lingering effects of life-altering challenges, like lead poisoning or homelessness.

We strip away the resources that foster a love of school. Then we take away the programs and staff that help students navigate life challenges. Then we throw an extra 10 students into a classroom and say: Learn. Succeed. Thrive. By doing so, we are lying to kids. We are giving city students a tired, broken stump and asking them to climb a tree.

As a city, our per pupil formula is roughly $15,000. Gov. Larry Hogan once said that "it takes more than just money to solve the problems we have in education," and of course, he's right. It takes more than gasoline to run a car, but that doesn't mean you can ride on fumes. In comparison to our per pupil funding, consider Gilman School, an exceptional all boys prep school located in Baltimore City. The tuition for a young boy entering Kindergarten there: roughly $20,900; by the time he gets to high school, the cost is just under $30,000. And one might assume that many of those students, coming from middle class or wealthy backgrounds, do not require the same level of social and emotional supports our students need; a full 20 percent of city students live at half of the national poverty level.

However sympathetic the plight of city schools, meaningful solutions always seem to evade us. And while I applaud city schools CEO Sonja Santelises for avoiding Band-Aid solutions that would simply kick a can down the road, the plan for bearing the burden of our current deficit is borne almost entirely on the backs of principals, teachers and, heartbreakingly, students.

So what, then, do we do?

First, the city and state must provide a financial bridge over the next three years while the district rights itself and compensates for a state formula that currently under-funds the Baltimore school system. We must also mobilize as a city to ensure that a new state funding formula for school districts, currently under development, expands the base of statewide funding for education and, most critically, accounts for concentrated poverty and student need. (Education Trust Fund and Maryland casinos, I'm looking at you.) On the district's end, we need better measures to improve strategic spending and budgeting so that the district lives within its means. Finally, we as citizens need to choose city schools for our children. The district's student population shrinks each year, in part, because parents with means opt out without exploring the flourishing non-charter options that exist within the district. Let's all be part of a solution that is so urgently needed.

Maggie Master is the parent of two future city school students and director of leadership development for Teach for America Baltimore. Her email is maggiemaster@gmail.com.

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