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Young pledges to redirect $10 million from Baltimore police to schools, sparking debate

Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said Tuesday he will look to cut $10 million from the police budget and redirect the money to city schools.

Young, who first made that pledge to cheering education advocates outside City Hall, is among a growing number of city leaders who have suggested spending less on policing and more on education and other services — even as Baltimore grapples with unrelenting violence.

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In her State of the City address last week, the mayor said she plans to fight an "unacceptable" crime rate by focusing on social services, not spending more money on police. Her position was applauded by some other elected officials and community leaders.

This week, Young specifically proposed taking money from the police to help the school system close its $130 million budget gap.

"A city that gives more to their police department than they give to their education system is a problem," he said.

While many welcomed the pledge, some neighborhood leaders expressed concern Tuesday about cutting the Police Department at a time when crime is on the rise.

Crimes of violence spiked in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent rioting in 2015. Violence has remained high ever since, while arrests have fallen.

During the first 21/2 months of the year, 68 people were killed, 191 shot, and more than 1,200 robbed, according to city data. Those statistics are all up by about 40 percent over the same period last year. One man was killed while riding a Charm City Circulator bus. Two teens were killed in the fire-bombing of a home.

At the same time, arrests have continued to drop. There have been about 450 fewer this year than last year, when arrests were already at a modern low, according to city data.

"Cutting funding to the Police Department is not the way to go at this time," said Nathan Willner, president of Cheswolde Neighborhood Association. "Right now we're at crisis levels. The safety of our children has to come first."

Joyce Green, president of the Central District Police Community Relations Council, said she wants to see more officers hired, not fewer.

"They need to audit the school system's budget," she said. "The Police Department spends so much money in overtime because they're overworking the officers we have now."

Pugh has made reining in police spending a focus of her administration but has not yet released her budget proposal for next year. Under the city charter, the mayor is required to release her budget by mid-May.

Since 2011, when Baltimore saw a modern low of 197 homicides, the budget for the Police Department has risen by about $130 million — to about $480 million this year. In contrast, the city spends about $265 million on its schools, which receive most of their funding from the state.

Despite the increase in police funding, more than 300 people have been killed in Baltimore in each of the past two years.

Pugh has ordered an audit of police overtime, which is on pace to surpass $40 million this year despite a $16 million budget. During her speech last week, the mayor said she wanted to focus on the root causes of crime, such as joblessness and poverty.

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At the same time, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has been shifting more officers to patrol. The city has also announced four small, high-crime zones that will be targeted with both intense policing and intense social services, such as job training and mental health treatment.

Ericka Alston, who runs the Penn North Kids Safe Zone in Sandtown-Winchester, said the mayor is right to focus on the long-term causes of crime.

"It's not a police problem," she said. "This is employment, this is housing, this is health disparities, this is decades of decline. … Our crime level is based on the state that people in these communities live in."

Alston said she has seen an additional wave of hopelessness wash over the community. She said after Gray died of injuries he suffered while in police custody, people in Sandtown were promised things would change. Two years later, she said, little is different.

"Broken promises retraumatize people," she said.

Young said Tuesday he plans to focus on police overtime as he seeks savings in the budget. He said he would also look at police administrative costs and executive protection.

"Look at the murder rate," he said. "Look at the carjackings. I don't mind paying overtime if we're going to see results. There are no results. What crime is being reduced as a result of all this overtime? We're just giving them a blank checkbook."

Young's pledge is part of a joint city-state effort to help with a massive schools budget shortfall.

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises announced early this year the district was headed toward a $130 million shortfall — equivalent to 10 percent of the system's roughly $1.3 billion budget.

Santelises said more than 1,000 people — including teachers, custodians and other staff — could be laid off. Some principals saw their school's budgets chopped by nearly one-quarter.

That ignited an intense campaign by teachers, parents and advocates to restore the money. Pugh and state lawmakers outlined a plan to deliver the schools $60 million annually for the next three years, with about half of the money coming from city sources, such as the rainy day fund and leftover snow removal money.

City officials want the state to make up the rest of the $180 million spread over three years. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan has not yet agreed to that deal.

Meanwhile, the school district has announced plans to reduce the deficit by $30 million by cutting its central office and tapping reserve funds.

Lisa Nguyen, treasurer of the South Baltimore Neighborhood Association, said she doesn't envy city officials trying to decide what to fund with limited resources. But, she said, both schools and police have to be top priorities.

"They're both very important," she said. "If we want families to invest in Baltimore, we need to feel comfortable leaving our front door and sending our kids to school. We need to focus on accountability on how those funds are being spent and whether they are being spent effectively."

Meanwhile, recent talk of additional funding for the schools has some principals feeling more optimistic. The principals will submit proposals next week for how they would spend any restored money.

"I feel pretty positive and encouraged that people other than principals, parents and teachers are taking a vested interest in our schools," said Aisha Almond, principal of Coppin Academy High School in West Baltimore.

Last month, Almond figured she would need to cut at least two of her 23 teachers to cover a loss of $200,000 next year. Now she hopes to keep at least one teacher in math. A teacher generally costs a principal about $90,000 in salary, health insurance and benefits.

"We shouldn't have to do more with less and be required to get the same results," Almond said.

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Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.

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