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Baltimore school board votes to pass $1.3 billion operating budget

The Baltimore school board voted 6-2, with one abstention, to pass next school year's $1.3 billion operating budget, which manages to avoid a call for layoffs but includes steep cuts for the city's public charter schools.

This year's budget season was largely drama-free compared to last year, when schools CEO Sonja Santelises revealed that the school system faced a massive shortfall and the threat of up to 1,000 layoffs. City and state officials worked to get an additional $180 million for Baltimore schools, distributed over three years, which brought the final number of mandated layoffs down to 115.

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With the system stabilized, this year's budget process allowed Santelises to think more about how to fund her priorities and less about how to identify areas for cuts. But even with the infusion of funds, she said, Baltimore schools remain chronically underfunded. City schools need an additional $358 million annually, according to a recent report. A state commission charged with revamping the way Maryland funds its schools has delayed its recommendations.

"This budget doesn't represent the best," Santelises said. "What it represents is our commitment to do the best we are able to do … with the resources we have."

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Following a year in which the Baltimore city school district was forced to lay off 115 people to fill a massive budget shortfall — including the first classroom teachers to lose their jobs in a decade — this year’s $1.3 billion proposed budget includes no layoffs.

The newly approved budget sets aside money for more than three dozen new positions in support of Santelises' signature initiative, the "City Schools' Blueprint for Success." The program drills into specific areas where schools need to improve, including literacy and "student wholeness."

The program will send 20 "literacy coaches" into select schools to work intensively with students on reading and writing. Another 20 schools will get a "student wholeness associate" who is tasked with supporting social and emotional learning.

The city will also add 16 positions in the operations department. These workers will focus on heating and other maintenance issues, following a frigid winter that revealed serious infrastructure issues in some of the city's school buildings.

But while the system is adding these new positions, the city's 34 public charter schools will see a combined $5.5 million reduction in funding.

The district will also institute new charges for charter schools, which some principals say will cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars on top of their losses.

These cuts will likely translate into larger class sizes and fewer teaching positions. Some charter advocates say the decreased funding could threaten the viability of these schools, which are among some of the highest performing in the city and enroll about 20 percent of city students. Charters are publicly funded campuses that are afforded more autonomy than a traditional public school.

Mira Green is a board member at the Green School of Baltimore, and sends one of her children there. She said she hopes to one day send her 2-year-old daughter too, but now worries the kind of programming that makes the school successful could be lost in this latest round of budget cuts.

"There is nothing left to cut," Green told the board. Students have begun collecting pennies, she said, which the board may have to use to buy books.

Baltimore City Council members also sent a letter to the school system, decrying the cuts to charters and the "successful alternative educational options" they represent.

A large portion of the cuts stem from an accounting mistake district officials made during last year's budget process, which artificially inflated charters' allocations. This year's budget corrects that miscalculation, which principals were warned about.

"We put schools on notice that they'd have to be prepared," said interim chief financial officer John Walker.

The Baltimore City school district’s recently unveiled budget proposal cuts roughly $5.5 million from its 34 charter schools.

Charters are funded differently from traditional public schools. They receive more cash per student because they don't get the same level of services from the central office that traditional schools do. Charters, for example, are responsible for paying for their own buildings and maintenance.

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But a slew of other costs are still absorbed by school district headquarters, such as payroll and standardized test administration. The district is allowed to charge an administrative fee to cover those costs.

A recent analysis showed that the amount of money the district charged charters for administrative services covered less than half the actual cost what was being provided. District officials say that means traditional public schools were essentially underwriting some of the costs for charters.

The district reconfigured the charter funding formula for the upcoming year, in an effort to be more equitable.

After voting on the budget Tuesday night, commissioners were scheduled to hear a presentation about new charter school applications for 2019.

Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English criticized the cuts to charters, along with other aspects of next school year's budget.

She said the school board rushed through the process, without giving enough time for substantive feedback. The budget was unveiled during the April 24 board meeting and there have been six community meetings in the two weeks since, though they were poorly attended.

"The community needs more opportunity to have input. If you're talking about cuts to the classroom, that's a real problem for us," she said. "There has not been time to have questions answered."

Walker said the district plans to move up the community feedback sessions next year so they can gather community feedback sooner. But Santelises said the district also needs to think introspectively about why people aren’t coming to the district’s meetings.

"If we are holding a party and no one is coming, we need to ask, 'Why are they not coming?'" she said.

English also said she has concerns about how Santelises will fill her 20 “literacy coach” positions. She said that experienced teachers who have been “surplussed” — or seen their positions eliminated due to budget constraints — should be immediately considered for those new spots.

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