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Thornton says $1.3 billion city school proposal puts 'children first'

Thornton says $1.3 billion city school proposal puts 'children first'
Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore city schools CEO Gregory Thornton on Tuesday proposed a $1.3 billion budget that includes fewer central office staff, more classroom teachers and a series of changes at the school district headquarters.

Thornton faced a looming $108 million deficit as he crafted his first budget as CEO. To help fill that gap, the central office's budget will decrease by $17.8 million through cost-cutting and departmental reorganizations and by cutting 120 funded positions.

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Thornton has said that about 100 people at the central office will be laid off this year.

He told the school board the budget plan achieves a goal of making the district more fiscally sustainable while making strides in improving the quality of students' education.

"Even in a tough budget year, we were able to put children first," Thornton said.

The budget includes an $11.6 million increase in direct aid to schools. The district plans to add 40 classroom teachers, mainly for students who speak English as a second language and the arts. The budget also funds expanding early childhood education programs, athletic programs in middle schools, and new career and technology programs in high schools.

At the Tuesday work session, school officials said that they will reverse an earlier decision to cut summer school programs. The city's chief academic officer said the district will re-appropriate $250,000 to fully restore an Advanced Placement Summer Academy for high school students, as well as programming for elementary school students.

The popular AP academy, held for the past three years at Digital Harbor High School, offered an opportunity for high school students to hone skills needed for advanced placement classes.

School board members said they'd also like to see other programs aimed at advanced students increased, rather than simply maintained.

Even as cuts are made, Thornton will fund initiatives at the central office. Of note, he said he will create an organizational development office that will focus on professional development and recruitment for educators. The district will also fund a new call center, student information system and potential overhaul of the assessments it uses to measure student progress.

School board members questioned several aspects of the budget, including how the district plans to attract qualified teachers in the arts, and whether it is investing too much in testing.

One board member asked if the district has grasped the impact that state cuts will have now that the General Assembly session has ended. District officials said that about $10 million slated to go to traditional schools was still in flux.

"I have less of a sense of how these budget decisions will be experienced in schools, and that's an important conversation to have if we have a gap of that size," said school board member Lisa Achkin.

A public forum will be held on the budget April 21, and the board is scheduled to vote on the package April 28.

Thornton said he felt good about the budget overall, except in one area.

"My only problem is that I had to have a reduction in force," he said. "We didn't come here to tear down, we came here to build."

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