City Council wants greater oversight of school spending

As the City Council approved the mayor's $2.5 billion operating budget Monday, members called for greater oversight of the Baltimore school system's spending.

City Councilwoman Helen Holton, chair of the budget committee, said she wants schools CEO Gregory Thornton to appear quarterly to discuss the schools' budget after the system faced a multimillion-dollar budget hole and laid off dozens of employees.


Holton, who introduced a resolution calling for regular budget updates from the school system, said the council heard conflicting stories from Thornton and initially did not want to approve the system's budget. In the end, members felt they had to "in order not to have a disruption to the education of our children."

"We needed to get more information, more clarification," Holton said. "We did not get all of the answers we needed."


Two council members — Warren Branch and James B. Kraft — voted against the schools budget, citing concerns over layoffs and school performance.

The $1.3 billion city schools budget for next year includes more than $900 million in state aid and about $258 million in city funds. City Council members must approve the budget, but do not provide direct oversight of the schools. That job rests with the school board.

School system spokeswoman Edie House-Foster said school officials understand that Holton wants to "work more closely with the administration in managing the fiscal health of the district."

"We see these regular check-ins as an opportunity to be even more transparent with our stakeholders," House-Foster said. "Everyone benefits from this ongoing dialogue."

Tension between the council and the schools administration flared last week when Holton's committee initially declined to approve the city's spending for schools, saying education officials had misled the council to believe layoffs would be limited to central office staff — then sent pink slips to 59 school-based employees.

"City Schools worked very hard to include stakeholders in the 2016 budgeting process," House-Foster said. "We held a number of community meetings, several board presentations and budget workshops."

Overall, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's budget for next year imposes no new taxes or fees and shrinks the city's workforce to the smallest size in decades. But it also includes no new property tax cuts — a decision that has drawn some criticism. The city anticipates a projected 9 percent increase in property tax revenue — $72 million — due to the city's development growth, particularly around the waterfront.

The council authorized only one significant change to the city budget: $4.2 million in additional funding for after-school and summer school programs, instead of paying off debt.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the mayor was a "willing partner" in agreeing to the change. Still, he argued, too much money is being spent on police instead of schools. He noted city funds for the police department are nearly double those spent on schools.

"We are not funding our schools at the level we should be," he said.

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Rawlings-Blake, said the budget shows the mayor's "commitment to fiscal responsibility while investing in programs that support our youth, create jobs and rebuild struggling communities."

"We are a long way from the dark budget days we inherited, but our resolve remains strong to deliver the services residents deserve," he said.


In other business, the council gave final approval to a $58 million subsidy for a residential and commercial development project in West Baltimore's Poppleton neighborhood. City officials say the project will revitalize the neighborhood by replacing vacant housing and lots with 1,600 apartments and other homes, a park, a school and 52,000 square feet of commercial space.

The council also approved a bill sponsored by Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke aimed at cracking down on noisy fraternity parties. Clarke's bill would allow police to issue citations at the scene of private events that disturb "the quiet enjoyment of others."

Rawlings-Blake plans to sign those bills into law, her spokesman said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Erica Green contributed to this article.


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