What's this? Kurt Schmoke and Walter Amprey in the same room? Who could pass up the chance to see what the mayor and the superintendent would say about that $27 million "shortfall" in the school system budget? Apart, they certainly have been sending mixed signals.
When the teachers got their 5 percent raise on Aug. 7, Dr. Amprey moaned "we may have to cut programs." Only to be corrected by the campaigning mayor, who should have had that old song, "Don't worry, be happy," playing in the background. Since then, Dr. Amprey has mimicked the Schmoke position that the schools' $647 million budget can be tailored to cover the $27 million deficit without cuts in the classroom.
Dr. Amprey's reversal, however, hasn't been convincing and one must wonder if the mayor is trying to keep appearances positive through the end of his campaign. Not so, the two men claimed Thursday at Cherry Hill Elementary School, where they unveiled a new program to help underachieving students. "The public should not be concerned that the children's education will be shortchanged this year," said Mr. Schmoke. "He just said it and I agree 100 percent," said Dr. Amprey.
They might be more believable if they stopped insisting that the $27 million shortfall is "routine." The school system does have to routinely adjust its budget each year to accommodate the unexpected. It had to work out a $24 million shortfall in last year's budget. But this year's hits are not routine.
There's the $5.8 million the state is holding back until Dr. Amprey proves he's a better manager. There's the $7 million that must be spent to improve special education programs under a long-running federal court suit. Then there's the teachers' 5 percent raise, which is going to cost $14 million. The budget included only a 2 percent raise.
Mr. Schmoke says he tried to get all the unions to finish contract negotiations by May. But they wouldn't discuss salaries until they knew what the city would receive from the legislature. "Our collective bargaining process is out of sync with the budget process," said the mayor. The dilemma is hard to resolve because the city also has to wait and see what it will get from Annapolis.
The mayor should not give up trying to find a way to base budgets on reality rather than on myths put out during labor negotiations. He and Dr. Amprey must keep their word not to hurt instruction while paying for this year's extra $27 million in expenditures. Dr. Amprey now says it will be another two weeks before he can specify where cuts will occur. We can hardly wait.