The Baltimore city school board is poised to vote Tuesday on a $1.2 billion budget that calls for another round of cuts to central office staff, including school police officers, but would boost funding for literacy and math initiatives.
The budget proposed by schools CEO Gregory Thornton wouldn't increase spending, but would reallocate some funds in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
For example, the district would cut about $1.4 million from school police and put it toward restorative justice programs in high schools. Charter schools would see a reduction in funding and traditional schools would receive an increase. Rising salary and benefit costs are expected to squeeze classroom resources at all schools.
In a year of flat revenue and rising expenses, Thornton says, he protected schools above all else.
"I'm proud to say that the district's budget proposal puts our students and schools first," he said in a statement. "It clearly reflects the district's commitment to providing an equitable and excellent education for every child."
Marnell Cooper, chair of the city school board, said the budget is the "first step into our strategic plan" for improving the school system over the next five years.
He said Thornton's budget supports some of the board's primary goals: to boost literacy for students in pre-K through third grade, and math skills in grades six through nine. The plan would devote more than $4 million in new funding to literacy initiatives, and more than $600,000 to math.
"This budget shows that we're making decisions about what other services that we can provide to kids, and how money can be reallocated to try to help kids in different ways," he said.
Elsewhere in the region, the Baltimore County school budget would include money to hire 130 teachers and continue the renovation and replacement of old schools, including adding central air conditioning.
Anne Arundel County Executive Steve Schuh has proposed $15 million to raise salaries for school employees and $20 million to right the school system's struggling healthcare fund.
Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's $808 million proposal would fund negotiated salary increases, special education and 56 new teacher positions. Harford County school officials are seeking more money for teacher salaries and new school buses. Carroll County's board of education has asked for a budget increase that would mitigate the effects of declining enrollment.
All of the county school systems' budgets await approval from local governments.
In Baltimore, the City Council votes on the school budget, but doesn't have the power to amend it. The city district gets more than 70 percent of its funding from the state.
Last year, orchestrated the district's first layoffs in a decade. Cuts this year could include positions now vacant, and would save about $4 million.
The district is also looking to cut down the pool of surplus staff, employees without permanent jobs that the district still has to pay, and the number of temporary employees working in the system.
Thornton said last year he had nearly depleted the surplus pool and cut back on temps. The district declined to provide the number of surplus employees and temps currently on the system's payroll.
Details of the cuts were news to Jimmy Gittings, head of the union that represents central office employees. Reached on Friday, he said it was "disheartening to hear there are going to be 54 positions cut from the central office from the Sunpaper."
He said he was assured last year that no more of his members would be cut, and would fight the elimination of any position.
"I have tried desperately to work with management, and if in fact any administrative positions are going to be cut, this is going to cause a definite divide between the administrative union and management," he said.
Thornton has proposed cutting 20 positions from the school police department. A proposal in the last year to arm the 126-member force in school buildings has proved controversial.
"It appears that the decision-makers in the Baltimore city school system are sending a clear message to the citizens of Baltimore that the schools are extremely safe," Sgt. Clyde Boatwright, president of the school police union.
"They're not taking into account the multiple violent assaults, multiple loaded handgun recoveries, robberies and even the murder of a student inside of a Baltimore city school."
He was referring to the stabbing of 17-year-old Ananias Jolley last November at Renaissance Academy. Jolley died a month after the attack.
Karl Perry, chief of schools support for the district, oversees the police department. In the last year, he said, school officials have been exploring different approaches to school safety.
Perry said the $1.4 million cut to the school police department would be reassigned to create restorative justice — an alternative to "zero tolerance" discipline that emphasizes mediation and rehabilitation rather than suspensions and expulsions — peer mediation and character development programs in high schools.
"We're working to continue to ensure our schools are safe," Perry said. "One of the things we have to do is provide additional support for our staff in building positive relationships with children."
Schools are also preparing to make tough decisions.
The General Assembly granted the perpetually cash-strapped district a reprieve this year from a nearly $30 million cut from the city and state because enrollment declined.
But the district's expenses skyrocketed this year. Salaries and benefits rose by more than $18 million, and new bills, such as the $10 million annual contribution toward building new schools in the city are also pressing the budget.
Thornton is calling for an increase in the amount of per-pupil funding for traditional schools by $233, to $5,569. Charter schools would see a $246 drop to $9,141.
Charter leaders say that the 33 schools are facing an average cut of $300,000, and collectively have had to cut 108 staff. City school officials declined to say how much funding and staff were cut at non-charter schools.
Charter schools receive more cash per pupil because they don't receive certain services from the central office that traditional schools do. More than one dozen charter schools are suing the district for failing to follow the state-mandated funding formula that could provide more money.
Kate Mehr, executive director of KIPP charter school, said this year's cut is costing her more than one dozen staff members, including several social studies, science and foreign language teachers, and support staff who help students academically.
KIPP is a national college preparatory model known for its rigor and extended day programs. Mehr said the district's cuts are threatening the school's viability.
"Our promise to our KIPPsters and our families is that we will get to and through college," she said. "We really hold that promise sacred, and these cuts make it very hard to deliver on that promise."
District officials say charter schools are getting the amount to which they are entitled under the funding formula. Last year, they operated with about $200 more per pupil than they were entitled to because the district did not reduce their funding when state revenue fell short. Traditional schools absorbed that cut.
Next year, schools Chief Financial Officer Don Kennedy said, "there's going to be pain all around."
Non-charter schools will see an increase in per-pupil funding next year because enrollment declined. But the schools will barely be able to cover the rise in personnel costs, Kennedy said, let alone fund additional programming.
Kennedy said the district expects per-pupil expenditures at both schools to rise when city funding is released in the coming months, which will help all schools increase their buying power by the fall.
"Revenue is flat, the need is high," Kennedy said. "In order to meet those needs, we need more resources."