City school system passes $1.2B budget

The Baltimore school board unanimously passed a $1.2 billion budget Monday that essentially remained intact since it was presented.

The last budget of outgoing schools CEO Andrés Alonso includes cuts to per-pupil funding and high schools but retains spending power for principals and adds academic programs.

The $793 million that would go to schools represents a 36 percent increase since 2008, when Alonso implemented the "Fair Student Funding" structure — which funds schools based on enrollment and gives principals autonomy over their budgets and hiring.

However, the per-pupil base amount all schools receive will decrease by $40 next year, because overall enrollment is expected to increase. Charter schools will receive $139 more in per-pupil funding because their funding formula is tied to district revenue, which increased.

Alonso, who announced this month that he would step down June 30, said he believed that although revenue hasn't kept pace with expenses — particularly wages and benefits for school system staff — the district is in a place of financial strength.

"It's been quite remarkable, the work that we have done in shifting our practices to try and put as much of our resources in the schools [as possible]," he said. "When people ask me about the sustainability of the work, I say, 'Our schools are so confident now, it doesn't matter who the CEO is. We've found a way to respect … the decision-making at the schools.'"

Schools that have received additional funding support will face challenges next year. For example, the district decreased additional funding, called "student weights," that high schools would receive for dropout prevention efforts by $100 per pupil.

The district's budget includes funding for new programming for gifted students and prekindergarten programs, which previously were funded with grants.

Victor De La Paz, the district's chief financial officer, said that overall the budget was "positive" but addressed questions raised by the school board after The Baltimore Sun inquired about an error in the budget last week. The budget did not include funding for the district's summer learning, and in response, the school system issued a page-long correction before the vote.

The corrections published Thursday said that summer learning was included in another category and that millions of dollars in contract costs were shifted from one category to another.

De La Paz said both were "essentially superficial."

But the errors were similar to those found in the district's budget in 2007, when officials said that "style and presentation" were responsible for dozens of errors, including "placeholder" numbers and salaries in the approved budget that did not match the number of employees.

"We recognize the budget process is an ongoing, living creature of sorts," said Neil Duke, the school board president. "We look forward to trying to perfect the process. This has been an educational process for everyone."

City school board Commissioner Shanaysha Sauls said that she looked forward to more clarity in future budget presentations.

"I assume that Budget Session 2.0 will be very clear … about how those changes are moved from category to category," she said of next year's budget process.

The school budget will go before the City Council on June 6. The council still is determining how much funding the school system will receive.

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