Baltimore schools chief proposes up to 300 layoffs to balance district budget

Baltimore city schools chief Sonja Santelises is proposing to lay off as many as 300 people, including teachers, to balance a $1.31 billion budget next year.

Santelises released her full budget plan for 2018 late Friday. It will go now to the city school board for approval.

The layoffs include fewer than 75 teachers in core subjects such as math and English, school officials said. The job cuts would mean a third straight year of layoffs in the school district, though cuts in recent years did not include teachers. The layoff notices will be sent to affected teachers and administrators by June 1, officials said.

"While we had to make cuts, we kept the majority of the resources where the core of teaching and learning happens — in the classroom," Santelises said in a statement.

The majority of layoffs will affect administrators and support staff, such as classroom assistants, special education aides, office secretaries, and central office employees. District adminstrators expect to further reduce the number of layoffs through routine retirements and departures that typically occur at the end of the school year.

"We are very hopeful and optimistic that there will be fewer than 300 individuals," said Edie House-Foster, the school district spokeswoman.

The budget has been a matter of debate and worry among school district employees for months, ever since Santelises revealed in January that the school system faced a $130 million shortfall. She warned then that there could be 1,000 people laid off. But four months later, after state and city legislators pledged nearly $60 million to help narrow the budget gap, Santelises has scaled back the layoffs.

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh praised the work of legislators to reduce the shortfall.

"That doesn't make the proposed layoffs any less difficult, because these are real people and families," she said in a statement Friday. "Funding quality education in Baltimore is a priority that we all share."

Baltimore City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a former teacher, had hoped the state and city money would reduce the layoffs even further.

"Of course, I was hoping for none," she said. "That's a lot of teachers to lose for our children."

Jimmy Gittings is president of the principals union, which represents many principals and other school-based administrators as well as central office staff. Gittings said the layoffs will affect at least 50 of his members, the most to lose their jobs in a decade. He said he had tried to avoid layoffs by offering for members to forgo pay raises, take on more of their health care expenses, and accept furlough days.

"Some of these people have dedicated their lives to the system," Gittings said. "I don't even see how central office is going to be able to operate."

The budget planning process in recent months has proven to be the biggest test for principals since they were empowered to manage their individual school budgets nearly a decade ago. The school system's nearly 200 principals were asked to develop budgets under deep cuts handed down by the central office. Some had expected to lose one-quarter of their funding.

Teachers, education activists and parents organized a campaign to close the funding gap with rallies in Baltimore and Annapolis.

The additional state and city money, nearly $60 million, was handed down to principals. Many were able to restore funding to keep teachers they had expected to let go. The money hasn't fully restored their funding, however, and principals have had to make difficult cost-cutting decisions.

Some principals decided to cut their school librarians in order to protect class sizes. Principal Sara Long was forced to cut her librarian at Federal Hill Preparatory School. Students at the Baltimore School for the Arts walked out of class last week to protest plans to cut their beloved librarian.

"None of these decisions were easy," said Chris Ford, director of the Baltimore School for the Arts. "We're looking at people who aren't in a classroom in front of students."

Ford said he had to protect classroom teachers and the arts programs at the heart of his school. He had faced a cut of $1.4 million before additional money arrived.

"We'll have to tighten belts. We'll have to be creative about how we do the work. But we'll be able to provide that programming," Ford said. "I'm grateful to the public officials for providing additional funding."

The money from state and city legislators cut the deficit to about $70 million. Santelises closed the remaining shortfall with cuts of $30 million from schools and $10 million from the central office. She's counting on $10 million in other savings next year, and plans to balance the budget by transferring $21 million from a reserve fund, considerably less than the $53 million diverted last year.

Her budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 represents a 2.6 percent decrease from this year.

Santelises' budget decreases per-pupil funding for traditional schools by about $150, bringing the total to $5,416 for next year.

Charter schools are budgeted to see an increase of about $150, pushing the per-pupil total to $9,288. Charters receive more money because the central office doesn't provide essential services and they must pay for their own administrators and building expenses.

The budget passed last year increased per-pupil amounts for traditional schools but decreased amounts for charters, both by more than $200.

Last year, the school system laid off about 100 people in a round of cuts that affected school police officers and central office administrators, but spared teachers and principals. The cuts saved about $14 million. Forty-four employees who lost their jobs worked in the central office.

In spring of 2015, administrators also laid off more than 100 people, bringing the district's first job cuts in more than a decade. The district tapped into its rainy-day fund to avoid layoffs in 2014.

School board members are scheduled to vote May 23 on Santelises' budget.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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