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Baltimore City Schools CEO Santelises introduces $1.18 billion budget for a “normal” school year

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises is proposing a small increase in the school system’s operating budget for next year, but an infusion of some $700 million in federal funds over the next four years will help defray pandemic-related costs.

The $1.18 billion general fund budget would increase spending by only $10 million over this year even as the school system tries to return to normal next school year, saying it intends to have students come back full time, five days a week.

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The federal relief money already has begun to arrive and will continue to increase over the next several years. It will be spent on COVID-19 testing, thousands of air purifiers, changes to HVAC systems, intensive cleaning of schools, new laptops, tutoring and summer school. The school system has received $48 million of that money, which must be spent by September, and another $197 million is coming that must be spent by September 2023.

“Our goal is to make sure we are being thoughtful about how we spend that after this year of disruption,” said Alison Perkins-Cohen, the chief of staff for the city schools.

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Because the funds are one time only, she said, they must be spent in ways that help students recover from the pandemic, but don’t make the system reliant on the money into the future.

Perkins-Cohen said some of the money will be spent to upgrade the WiFi systems in schools where the internet is not available throughout the building.

While school officials expect schools to be operating on a normal, five-day-a-week schedule in the fall, Perkins-Cohen said they will be asking the community for input on how to create a virtual school for families unwilling to return in person.

The slight increase in the operating budget will be spent on long-term priorities, including providing a focus on student mental health and wellness, adding literacy coaches in schools and expanding one-on-one and group tutoring.

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The school system also will be working to expand career and technology education programs to high school students, Perkins-Cohen said. Already revamping the curriculum to provide students more useful training for jobs before they graduate, the system will work on adding different vocational paths.

A wider range of classes for advanced students also is a priority, she said, adding that they want to make “sure that all students have access to a range of AP classes.”

The school system will allocate about 70% of its operating budget, or $800 million, directly to schools where principals decide how the funds are spent. Most of the remainder goes to programs in schools that are run by administrators in the North Avenue headquarters, and 6% goes to the central office.

The city will spend an additional $8 million next fiscal year, according to the school system’s budget, for a total of $295 million. The bulk of the city school budget — some $857 million — comes from the state, and the remainder comes from other sources, including the federal government.

After the state’s passage of landmark education legislation last year, city schools will be getting more funding in the coming years. The General Assembly made changes earlier this month to the legislation, providing additional money to school systems for the coming fiscal year. The action, however, was taken too late to be included in the proposed budget. Those dollars will be added before it is finally approved by the City Council and the mayor next month.

The school board is set to vote on the budget in less than two weeks.

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