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School board passes budget

The Baltimore Sun

A plan by Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso to overhaul school funding became reality last night as the city's board of education adopted a $1.2 billion budget for next academic year.

Seven of nine board members voted to approve the budget, with members James W. Campbell and George M. VanHook Sr. abstaining. Campbell said he is worried about the pace of change, which he said is faster than any other large school system in the country. VanHook expressed concerns about the capacity of the system's infrastructure to handle the changes.

In response to Campbell, board member Anirban Basu said few systems need to move as quickly as Baltimore.

The budget cuts 310 jobs from the school system's central office, closes a $50 million shortfall, diverts $70 million from the central office to schools and gives principals more power. The displaced employees will be offered jobs in school buildings.

Under a new funding formula contained in the budget, principals will have discretion over at least $5,000 per student, up from about $90 now. On top of that, they will receive $2,200 for each student who is struggling and each student qualifying as gifted, plus $900 for every low-income student in high school. On average, schools will receive more than $9,000 per student, with some of that money designated for specific purposes.

Principals will use the new formula to develop their own school spending plans, based on enrollment projections for the 2008-2009 year. Individual school budgets must be submitted to Alonso on May 22.

Principals are expected to gather community input as they use their discretionary spending power to craft budgets that meet students' needs. They will control class size, textbook purchasing and whether to keep positions from assistant principals to hall monitors. If they want an art class or an after-school program, they must rearrange their budgets to make it happen.

In the coming weeks, the school board will vote on an accountability structure defining the goals principals must meet with their newfound power and the sanctions they will face if they fall short.

The 89-page budget document that was before the school board last night is leaner and easier to understand than the documents of previous years. It contains an explanation of major changes in each department. Last year, the board approved a budget document filled with errors and discrepancies.

This year's document does not include a list of how much money each school is projected to receive under the new formula. Because schools have not been funded equally in the past, some stand to gain money and others stand to lose.

The amount of money a school can gain will be limited to 10 percent of its budget, and the amount it can lose will be limited to 15 percent. Officials say 125 of the system's 190 schools will gain money over the current year, with an average increase of $493,570 apiece. Twenty-one schools that have received disproportionately high levels of funding in the past will lose money, with an average decrease of $76,822.

The city's neighborhood high schools are projected to be the biggest winners because they have been underfunded.

The bulk of the budget, $830 million, is state money. Alonso had to cut $50 million - and expects to do so again next year - because the state is scaling back on its funding increases to school systems as part of efforts to close Maryland's budget gap. City government's contribution to the schools, $208 million, has been virtually flat in recent years. The federal government's share is $138 million.


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