City schools budget approved

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore school board approved on Tuesday night a $1.27 billion budget for next academic year that closes a multimillion-dollar shortfall and cuts 179 central office jobs in the second year of a massive decentralization.

In voting on the budget, the board adopted Chief Executive Officer Andres Alonso's recommendation to cut ties with for-profit EdisonLearning at two low-performing elementary schools, Furman L. Templeton and Gilmor. Edison will continue to run Montebello Elementary/Middle, but for less money.

The state brought in Edison to manage the three schools as part of a takeover in 2000 and transferred control back to the city school board two years ago.

Montebello, which meets academic targets, will be funded like the system's charter schools, public schools that operate independently in exchange for results.

The board also voted to extend the contract of a charter high school, the Maryland Academy of Technology and Health Sciences (MATHS), for two years. Board members were divided about whether to revoke the contract because of problems, including an extremely high suspension rate. The vote came with several stipulations, among them that MATHS restructure its governing body and address "nepotism concerns."

Officials said the concerns involve personal relationships among members of the governing body, staff members and nonprofit employees working with the school.

Alonso, who is recommending the closure of several failing schools operated by the system, pushed for the board to keep MATHS open because, he said, many parents want to send their children there.

The budget was approved despite concerns from the system's Parent and Community Advisory Board that insufficient details had been made public about how the decentralization worked in its first year.

The central office will shrink to 1,107 employees after the latest job cuts take effect. It had employed 1,500 people when Alonso became CEO in 2007.

The workers whose positions are being eliminated will have the opportunity to apply for other jobs within the system. The cuts will save the system $40 million this year, the bulk of a $55 million shortfall. The remaining $15 million would come from reserves and a potential surplus. Alonso said the system learned Tuesday that it will lose $3 million more than expected in state money for special-education students requiring private school placement and will need to modify accordingly.

The system has faced shortfalls in its general fund for each of the past two years because of a 2007 state decision to limit inflation increases to districts. State and local funding has been relatively flat amid increased costs. But during the next two years, the system will get a large influx in specialized funds from the federal stimulus. Without stimulus money, it would have faced devastating cuts.

Alonso has decentralized to send more money to schools, believing decisions are best made by those closest to students. He has vastly expanded principals' autonomy. On Wednesday and Thursday, more than 150 organizations will offer their services and programs - ranging from debate to art to college counseling - to principals at a "vendor fair" at the Patapsco Arena. Principals are expected to craft individual school budgets tailored to local needs, with parent and community input required.

Parents, students and staff members from the Edison schools packed last night's meeting, urging the board to keep the company. But Templeton and Gilmor have not been progressing nearly as fast as the system as a whole, despite getting more money than other schools.

An article Wednesday about the Baltimore school board approving the budget for next academic year incorrectly stated the number of people who would work at the system's headquarters after the planned job eliminations. There would be 1,007 people working at the central office.The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.
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