$1.2 billion schools budget OK'd

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore school board approved last night a $1.2 billion budget for the next school year with more money for prekindergarten and middle school reform than initially proposed, but less for new textbooks and elementary class-size reduction.

The board also signed off on plans to close Thurgood Marshall Middle School in the summer of 2008 and Hamilton Middle in the summer of 2009. Marshall will stop admitting sixth- and seventh-graders next school year; Hamilton will stop admitting sixth-graders.

With room for tens of thousands more students than it had enrolled, the system committed in the fall of 2005 to reducing square footage by 15 percent over three years. The first round of school closures occurred last summer. The school board approved several more closures last month, but it delayed action on Marshall and Hamilton to hold another public hearing.

After last night's vote, the board has approved the closure of 12.6 percent of its space.

The budget, which was approved weeks later than in surrounding school systems, contains $1.5 million to add prekindergarten classes at 16 schools.

Interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston initially proposed adding eight prekindergarten classes, but she expanded the initiative amid criticism that the plan did not go far enough to meet a state requirement. The money to double the initiative came from a fund to replace old textbooks.

All Maryland school systems must offer prekindergarten to all low-income 4-year-olds by the 2007-2008 academic year, in exchange for millions of dollars in increased aid from the so-called Thornton legislation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, a plaintiff in a long-running lawsuit accusing the state of unlawfully underfunding the city schools, estimates that up to 1,550 of 6,500 Baltimore children eligible for prekindergarten each year are not enrolled.

To increase the amount of money for middle school reforms, such as in-school suspension and expanded arts programs, $7 million budgeted for class-size reduction in the elementary grades was reduced to $1.5 million.

The budget now will be sent to Mayor Sheila Dixon and the City Council for final approval. It will take effect July 1.

The board delayed voting last night on whether to continue a partnership with a for-profit company, Edison Schools, to manage Montebello, Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor elementaries. Edison, the nation's largest school-management company, has run the three schools under a contract with the state education department since 2000.

At the time the state awarded the contract to Edison, it had the power to seize control of the schools, which were among the lowest-performing in the city. Now, state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick plans to return control of the schools to the school board when Edison's contract expires in June - a result, she says, of changes in state and federal law.

Boston is recommending that the board keep Edison in charge of the three schools. Edie House, a school system spokeswoman, said the board will vote on the matter at its next public meeting April 24.


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