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Parents sound off on city schools budget that faces $108 million deficit

Parents complained about large class sizes and questioned the ability of Baltimore public schools to attract and keep good teachers at a budget forum Thursday.

School officials and parents gathered at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical Senior High School as city schools confront a $108 million deficit in a total budget of more than $1 billion. Officials have warned they could be forced to lay off employees and cut back on programs and purchases.

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Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton outlined a plan this month to close the district's deficit by cutting hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in spending. He has identified $63 million in savings toward closing the gap. The district also is hoping the state restores $35 million in funding cuts.

Thornton told parents Thursday that "like many communities, we probably want to do more than we have the resources to do."

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But parents questioned whether school system and elected leaders were doing enough to ensure the district has the resources it needs.

"I feel that we should be putting pressure on the mayor" to provide more funding, said Kimberly Lodge, the parent of two students at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School. "That kind of pressure should be coming from our school leaders."

Parents also raised concerns about funding schools based on enrollment. Parents said they believe that model has caused inequities and contributed to overcrowding because principals took more students in order to get more money.

Thornton has proposed cutting hundreds of extra teachers and administrators in the district's "surplus" pool, which would save $15 million. He also would save about $10 million by not covering a cost-of-living pay increase for staff.

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Parents asked whether lower pay would hurt the district's ability to keep good teachers.

A reorganization of the district, which would eliminate jobs at the central office, and cut temporary employees and other spending would save another $15 million.

Thornton has added about $14 million in programs and initiatives that he wants to fund in next year's budget, including $5 million for technology and a $2.3 million expansion of arts in elementary schools and athletics in middle schools.

At another forum this week, students scrutinized Thornton's plan. Some said the $5 million Thornton would spend on technology could be put to better use.

"That money could be put to ensuring class sizes are smaller in elementary schools, rather than having a class of 35 first-graders with IPads," said Eddie Hawkins Jr., the student commissioner on the school board.

Thornton said that the suggestion was "right on target" and that he's seen class sizes ranging from 22 to 35 students.

He said the variance shows that "our resources aren't where they need to be."

Other students said that while they were glad to see the CEO's budget called for maintaining specialized programs such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate — both were on the chopping block last year — they had hoped for an expansion of those programs.

"There's a lot of maintaining the status quo rather than growth," said Makayla Gilliam-Price.

The district will hold another budget forum from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday at Carver Vocational-Technical High School. Thornton expects to present a balanced budget later this month. The school board is scheduled to adopt the budget April 28.

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