Vote on controversial Baltimore school budget Tuesday
By By Erica L. Green and The Baltimore Sun
May 26, 2014 | 1:42 PM
Baltimore's school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a $1.3 billion budget that has drawn backlash from schools and lawmakers for its program cuts, and has led the board to consider overhauling a local funding formula that left some high schools with as much as $450,000 in cuts.
The proposed budget — which shows dwindling financial support for two high-profile programs for gifted students, Ingenuity Project and International Baccalaureate — has spurred petitions, political outcry and a citywide debate about the investment in advanced students.
School officials proposed cutting the IB programs at City College and The Mount Washington School by more than $30,000 next year. And support for the Ingenuity Project, a science, technology, engineering and math program that serves high-performing schools like Roland Park Elementary/Middle and Polytechnic Institute, hit a five-year low this year, with next year's funding proposed to come from the district's rainy-day fund.
Additionally, the school board will vote to approve individual school budgets for the 2014-2015 school year, with the deepest cuts planned at large high schools such as Edmondson-Westside, Poly, City College and Dunbar.
Budget decisions the school board is facing have led members to question the future of the district's "Fair Student Funding" formula, a trademark of former schools CEO Andres Alonso's reform.
The formula was implemented by Alonso, who led the district for six years before stepping down last year, to give principals more autonomy of their schools.
The formula gives schools a base per-pupil expenditure, and extra funding for students with certain characteristics, such as advanced or special education. School budgets are based on enrollment.
Shanaysha Sauls, president of the school board, said the board believes "the time is ripe to evaluate and make improvements in how we budget, so that we can make better investments on behalf of students and schools."
She said the idea of Fair Student Funding is "groundbreaking and inventive in many ways, but it is not a perfect one."
Interim CEO Tisha Edwards,who will be leaving her position next month when Gregory Thornton takes over as superintendent, said a review of the model would be welcomed as the school systemfacesnew challenges that include a $20 million annual investment in school facilities, more charter schools and different school board priorities.
"The state of the district is very different than it was six years ago," she said. "We need to make sure that the funding model complements the new priorities.
Board members have raised concerns about schools' ability to use the per-pupil funding to adequately support both core academics and enrichment programs.
Among the questions that arose during budget debates is why schools weren't able to pay for programs like Ingenuity and IB with the money they received for advanced students.
A City Council resolution was introduced urging funding for the gifted programs.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who co-sponsored the resolution, said Friday that funding for the programs was clearly "inadequate" because the school system isn't able to offer the programs to all eligible students. She wants funding levels restored and maintained this year.
"We need to lift up all the students who can make the most of advanced studies, and ensure that every student eligible is included," she said.
State Dels. Sandy Rosenberg, Jill Carter and Nathaniel Oaks also spoke on behalf of schools losing IB funding. The Mount Washington School community presented a petition to have its money restored. City College and Poly students and alumni also started a petition, which had nearly 600 signatures Friday, and plan to a rally before the school board meeting Tuesday.
Among the biggest drawbacks in the "Fair Student Funding" model is that it can force schools to experience wild yearly fluctuations based on enrollment projections.
"Budget constraints and uncertainty as well as funding inconsistencies from year to year for schools across the district — especially for our high schools and small schools — have created a situation that is clearly unsustainable," Sauls said.
For example, Edmondson-Westside is slated to lose 101 students, which would cost the school $456,442 next year. Poly would lose $408,136 based on a projected 94-student decline. And City, expected to lose 62 students, would get $279,771 less.
At Edmondson, this will mean that additional support and strategies the school has used to improve its culture and academics may have to be reduced, said Principal Karl Perry.
Perry said the cut — the largest in the district — will not affect academic offerings in core subjects.
But programs that have provided additional support to students, such as academic coaches who tutor students and provide test prep assistance, may be reduced. Initiatives the school has used to improve culture, such as designing and paying for school uniforms and improvements to its sprawling campus, could also be affected.
"That kind of stuff makes a difference, in attendance, in branding, in the pride and respect kids have for their school and community," Perry said.
Perry, who has been at Edmondson-Westside for two years during which academic data have improved, is contesting enrollment numbers the district is using to determine the school's budget.
District officials said it's not unusual for principals to push back on enrollment numbers.
Perry said that the school's historical trends, which central office officials use to make enrollment and budget projections, don't reflect the fact that enrollment has stabilized.
"What happened five years ago shouldn't negatively impact our ability to offer a positive learning environment today," Perry said. "I'm going to have to find the funds. My children deserve it."
Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's principals union, said that in most cases, principals who see deep cuts will sacrifice materials and supplies before they cut teachers.
"Fair Student Funding has always been a disaster for the school system," Gittings said. "Too many transient students moving through the system has caused schools to have dramatic cuts from one year to the next."
Gittings said that the principal autonomy component of the Fair Student Funding model is overstated.
He pointed out that the central office gives principals their enrollment projections — which he said can be "drastically off" — and also makes recommendations for how principals should form their budgets. Some recommendations, he said, "are more binding than others."
Overall, Gittings said, many principals have struggled with the model.
"Our schools have never received the type of funding [under Fair Student Funding] that is necessary to implement the type of curricula and strategies that they need to ensure that our children receive the best education that they can," he said. "I hope that will change with the next administration."
Edwards says that Fair Student Funding has been an equitable way to fund schools and leaves little room for arbitrary funding decisions.
She pointed out that Poly and City not only lost enrollment, but had fewer advanced students, so they received less base and extra funding. That means they need to push more students to advanced levels or admit more students.
Edmondson, she said, needs to brand itself as a viable option for more students on the west side. She noted that a nearby school has seen its projected enrollment increase.
Frederick Douglass, once a school that students didn't want to attend, will gain $1 million next year because it has emerged as a competitor on the west side, she said. The school, which has a waiting list, is projected to gain 175 new students next year.
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"I have to fund those schools where the parents and the community are feeling more confident, or have programs that are proving to be strong options for kids," she said. "I am not striving for perfection, I'm striving for equity and transparency."
She also pointed out that enrollment adjustments are made in September to reconcile funding discrepancies. But that means schools can lose and receive funding after planning for the year is completed.
Edwards acknowledged that the model could leave funding gaps in schools.
"No, you may not be able to have everything you had last year, because there are other kids somewhere else that need that money," Edwards said. "So the community needs to come together to decide where those cuts need to happen that have the least impact on the areas of the school that are experiencing the most success."