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City school board adopts $1.23 billion budget

The Baltimore City school board voted Tuesday to adopt a $1.23 billion budget for the next academic year that will increase the amount of funding for students and continue shifting control over spending from the central office to principals.

In its adoption of the 2011 budget, proposed by schools CEO Andres Alonso, the system will spend about $200 more per student next year. However, that extra money will come from a decrease in the amount of additional funds the district provides in extra educational services for students who have disabilities, fall behind in achievement, are advanced or are at risk for dropping out. For example, students with disabilities this year received an additional $1,282 per student; next year, those students will receive an additional $641.

The board also voted to eliminate 15 vacant positions in the school system's central office and put the $637,000 saved back into the pot for city principals.

A steady funnel of money into the school system's budget from city, state and federal governments essentially kept revenues and expenditures flat, school officials said, leaving much unchanged.

"We're very fortunate that we've gotten support from the federal government, city and the state," said Michael Frist, chief financial officer for city schools. "We're actually able to maintain our programs and school-based options from what we had in the current year."

The spending plan represents a 2.8 percent drop from the 2010 budget. The difference is the result of a one-time influx of stimulus funds that the school system received from the federal government this year.

In addition to $147 million in federal dollars for 2011, the school system received $43 million in stimulus grants and is expecting millions more in the coming months. The state — the largest contributor to the school budget — increased its funding by $29 million from last year, to a total of $819 million, because of a documented increase in students who receive free and reduced-price lunches.

Despite its budget crisis, Baltimore City came up with more than $200 million for schools, though it plans to scale back on support services to health centers, crossing guards and student transportation. The remaining 1 percent of the budget is raised by the school system.

The steady revenue made for an anticlimactic budget season compared with the past three years, when Alonso's budget dovetailed with a large overhaul in how school funds were distributed.

Alonso, who took his post in 2007, has focused on shifting the control of funds from the central office to individual schools. The central office work force has declined by 34 percent under his administration.

"I think this year has been essentially debate-free, in part, because there is a real acceptance that the real thrust of everything is about keeping the resources in the schools," Alonso said.

The 2011 budget allocates $824 million to schools this year for discretionary spending by principals, who will submit their school budgets to Alonso in the coming weeks. Schools will receive about $5,000 per student next year, though rising costs for teacher and employee benefits will reduce the amount of money at some principals' disposal, Frist said.

School advocates praised officials for aggressively pursuing funding for the budget, which takes effect July 1.

"City schools showed great improvement in documenting the number of students from low-income households, which triggered an increase in state aid, critical for their budget next year," said Bebe Verdery, education reform director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

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