City schools budget forums take place this week

Public forums on the Baltimore City school system's fiscal year 2016 budget will begin Wednesday night with a student discussion at the Baltimore Design School.

The forum will be one of three scheduled to take place this week, as the school system seeks input on the community's priorities as city schools CEO Gregory Thornton prepares a balanced budget that started with a $108 million hole.


On Thursday, a forum will be held at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School from 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.; on Saturday, another will be held at Carver Vocational-Technical High School from 10 a.m.-noon.

In recent weeks, debate and speculation has been stirring in the district after The Sun revealed the school system wasn't just facing a $35 million cut from the state -- the only deficit that had been made public by school officials at that point -- but that it also faced a structural deficit of well over $60 million.

Thornton said later in an interview with The Sun that all told, the district's budget deficit was actually $108 million. Of that, $35 million was the state cuts and $72 million was the school system's bills outpacing its cash.

As of March 4, Thornton  has only made public how he's reduced the deficit by $63 million so far.

Here's how:

1.) Depleting the district's surplus pool -- Thornton plans to get rid of the vast majority of excess teachers and staff who are still being paid by the system but don't have permanent placements in schools. Carrying a surplus has been a controversial practice in the district -- the system has carried hundreds of extra staff at a time -- as it is rare for a school system to pay for displaced staff. By ending this practice, Thornton plans to save about $15 million.

2.) Halting practice of paying for students twice -- Under the system's "Fair Student Funding" model, which funds schools based on enrollment, the district adopted the philosophy that the "money follows the child." Thornton found that when that happens -- say, a student transfers to another school in the middle of the year -- schools suffer.

For the past few years, the school system has been essentially paying double for students who transfer from one school to the next so that transfers wouldn't hurt the budgets of schools they leave. Thornton has proposed to save nearly $15 million by stopping that practice.


3.) Keeping per-pupil funding the same as last year -- Next year, schools will receive the same amount of money for students as they did last year. But that per-pupil funding will not cover all costs, particularly a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for staff. That means schools' buying power will decrease, Thornton acknowledged. That will save about $10 million.

4.) Cutting costs and reorganization at North Avenue -- Staff and spending at the central office will take a huge hit in this year's budget, Thornton said. He hired a consulting firm to interview staff on what they do and how they do it to identify efficiencies.

He also said he has begun to scale back on the basics like travel and meals (if you remember, The Sun has written about how North Ave.'s catering bills have reached $1 million in recent years), and has begun to scrutinize how departments spend their money every week.

But a large part of the savings would come from a major restructuring of the district and central office. Thornton has not specified how many jobs will be cut from the central office, but The Sun has learned that he plans to cut the number of school system's "networks" created under the previous administration. They are clusters of administrators who support schools and act as liaisons to the central office.

5.) Miscellaneous savings -- One million here and a few hundred thousand dollars there will be saved through the closing of schools, and redoing the way schools receive money from Baltimore foundations.

The new schools chief also has about $14 million in investments he wants to make, including new senior teaching positions, the expansion of fine arts and middle school athletics. The largest investment he wants to make is in a line item called "academic technology strategies" which would cost $5 million.


As of last week, the budget deficit stood at $59 million.

Among other places he is continuing to look at for savings is in the district's healthcare packages, the use of temporary employees, and the system's costly transportation system.

The board is expected to vote on the city schools budget April 28.