City schools chief Alonso is criticized

The Baltimore Sun

City schools chief Andres Alonso expected to be grilled by the City Council about his proposed $1.2 billion budget yesterday, so it wasn't a surprise that there were tough questions about funding for after-school programs and administrative cuts.

But when several council members criticized the schools leader at a budget hearing at City Hall for poor communication, he seemed taken aback.

"I am on the front line every day," Alonso fired back to an initial attack by Councilwoman Helen L. Holton, who blamed Alonso for failing to keep her abreast of school programs so that she could pass on the information to constituents. "I meet with parent groups every night," said Alonso, who was also praised by some council members for his passion and hard work.

Alonso told reporters that he expected to face tough questioning. The tense exchange came during a committee hearing that was otherwise tame and, at times, even warm and fuzzy. Council members congratulated Alonso, who has run the system since July, for his work and for making difficult budget and organizational decisions.

Entering the budget process, the school system faced a $50.4 million shortfall, as well as several initiatives that needed additional funding. To meet budget needs in the coming fiscal year, the school system targeted savings worth $13 million in the current budget year and made $40 million worth of personnel cuts at the school system's central office, among other actions. An additional $70 million will be redistributed to schools for site-specific uses.

Alonso told the council that budget constraints forced him, the school board and his administration to think hard about spending. "This difficult time has become an opportunity to rethink how to make our schools better, how to make them more responsive to the needs of students and parents, and how to ensure responsibility and accountability," he said.

And although several council members recalled sweet moments when they had witnessed Alonso celebrating students' successes at musical performances or other events, there was also some bitterness.

Besides Holton, Councilman James B. Kraft, who has been feuding with Alonso over his decision to put a new middle/high charter school in his Canton district, also sniped at the schools chief for failing to keep the council in the loop. He said that information provided to him in April stated that the new school in Canton would be open to sixth-graders and ninth-graders only, but recently eighth-graders were added.

Kraft said he was frustrated because he had given his constituents false information. "This is a communication issue," Kraft said, adding later: "It sounds like we are being picky, but these are serious issues that I hope we don't have to deal with in the future."

For his part, after being twice attacked, and because the hearing was nearing the two-hour mark, Alonso yielded. "Thank you, Councilman," he said.

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