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Confronting cuts: Baltimore's principals grapple with dwindling school budgets

"It's the first time I've been doing this and seen a principal with a tear in their eye."

Fifth-grader Lenard Carter has learned to play the violin, the tuba, the drums and piano at his after-school music program. But he and about 120 schoolmates may not be able to continue next year.

Principal Nancy Fagan says she doesn't have the $35,000 needed to continue the program at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School No. 215.

She has already cut four of 37 teachers from her budget for the next school year. The basketball and soccer teams are gone, too.

Fagan is not the only one making tough fiscal decisions. Baltimore City Public Schools' $130 million budget shortfall is forcing the roughly 180 principals district-wide to plan on doing without.

Highlandtown Elementary stands to lose $428,000 in funding next year, nearly 14 percent of its budget.

"I don't ever remember anything being this bad, this dire at the school level," said Fagan, who has worked 31 years in city schools.

The principals have been directed to prepare budgets that assume cuts of as much as 20 percent. They began submitting their spending plans last week to the district's finance department.

Schools CEO Sonja Santelises has said some money could be restored to principals if the city and state provide new financial assistance, but nothing is certain. Mayor Catherine Pugh has said she asked the state for help in addressing the shortfall and hopes to offer a plan in coming weeks. She has not said if the city will provide more aid to its schools.

In devising their budgets, the principals have planned to cut teachers and increase class sizes, end art and music programs, and discontinue after-school tutoring and sports. The process is the biggest test for principals since they were given power over their school budgets nearly a decade ago.

When Craig Rivers learned that he would have $2.6 million less to run the city's largest high school, he called a meeting of his faculty advisers. They gathered in a 10th-grade English classroom at Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School.

"Guys, I just want to be clear: $2.6 million is going to change staffing here. It's going to change some of our programs," he told them. "What are your non-negotiables? What are those things that we have got to do?"

Over the next two hours, they debated how to pare the budget by 20 percent and ensure that class size stays manageable in a school with 1,600 students. Rivers settled on a plan that cuts 10 of 114 teachers, including some who taught core subjects such as English, as well as an assistant principal and a guidance counselor.

The school would also lose another counselor dedicated to college admissions and its only librarian.

"People don't understand what's happening to these schools," Rivers said. "We need people to see that, to see it's important."

The principals have not been shy about expressing their frustrations. They rallied outside the mayor's office in City Hall and the governor's mansion in Annapolis. They brandished their printed budgets and affixed them to picket signs.

"We live in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest country in the world. These circumstances are an injustice, and they are unacceptable," said Christophe Turk, principal of George Washington Elementary. His small school would lose $213,000 and two of its 19 teachers.

Monarch Academy would lose one assistant principal and four of its 57 teachers. Harlem Park Elementary/Middle could lose four or five of 22 teachers. Kindergarten and first-grade class sizes would jump from 22 to 35 students at Matthew A. Henson Elementary, said Principal David Guzman.

Highlandtown's beloved music program is run in partnership with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's OrchKids program. The program brings in classical musicians to train the students, including Lenard Carter, the 10-year-old violinist.

"He plays 17 instruments all because of OrchKids," said his mother Shannon Gorham. "Being an urban child, he may never have gotten the chance."

Santelises has said more than 1,000 people could be laid off district-wide. If city and state officials don't commit more money by the end of the month, it may be too late to change course, she warned.

One teacher generally costs a principal about $90,000 in salary, health insurance and benefits.

Under the cuts, Benjamin Franklin High School would lose more than $900,000 and 11 teachers. Roland Park Elementary Middle would lose $1.6 million and 15 positions. Patterson Park Public Charter would lose more than $517,000 and five teachers. Coppin Academy High School would lose $200,000 and three of its 23 teachers.

"It's the first time I've been doing this and seen a principal with a tear in their eye," said Andre Cowling, the city's chief of schools.

Federal Hill Preparatory School, among the smallest and therefore hardest hit, would lose nearly $340,000, almost 16 percent of its budget. Principal Sara Long submitted a budget Tuesday that cuts three of the 17 full-time teachers. She would combine the homerooms of second- and third-graders, and of fourth- and fifth-graders, to make do. The homerooms would jump from about 25 to 30 students.

The cuts are especially disheartening for parents in Federal Hill who organized open houses, science nights and neighborhood cocktail parties to recruit new families and increase the school's rolls.

"It's just a punch in the gut from the city and the state," said Adam Crandell, a parent.

Multiple factors are cited for the city schools' budget shortfall, including growing city property values and shrinking student enrollment — the district expects to lose nearly 1,000 students next year. The two factor into a formula officials use to determine state aid.

The school district stands to receive $42 million less from the state next year. State funding will have decreased by nearly $80 million over four years by this summer. Meanwhile, city funding for schools will have increased by $13 million during that same period.

Principals, parents and teachers have demanded that the city and state spend more to shrink the deficit and avert the layoffs. But Baltimore faces its own budget shortfall of $20 million and the state of Maryland is dealing with a $544 million gap.

"Some folks in Annapolis have looked the other way," said Brendan O'Brien, president of the parent-teacher organization at Federal Hill Preparatory. "I don't think the people in power can expect to get any votes here."

His daughter, Karis, a fourth-grader, has been singing around the house in preparation for the school's spring musical, "Beauty and the Beast." The parent organization is considering offering free tickets to the play to entice new families to their school. Meanwhile, the principal is prepared to cut either the librarian or art teacher next year.

The school district has offered principals help with budgeting and provided cost estimates and staffing suggestions. A fine arts program costs at least $2,500. A string orchestra costs at least $30,000 to start. Football season medics cost at least $400. In a year when every dollar counts, the cost estimates continue right down to a custodian's snow shovels: $6 to $12 each.

"I have literally developed 28 different scenarios," said Ashley Cook, principal of The Mount Washington School. The elementary/middle school would lose about $924,500.

In past years, the school district suggested principals employ one guidance counselor for every 400 students. This year the ratio was slackened to one counselor per 600 students. And district officials are asking small schools to justify their need for an assistant principal.

"Guys, this is my 10th year here in Baltimore City Schools, and I have never seen something like this," Turk told his teachers at George Washington Elementary. "I feel so strongly — it just burns me up. It burns me up."

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