Abbottston Elementary is one of the smallest elementary schools in the city. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
Abbottston Elementary School is so small that when a boy who misbehaved in the cafeteria this month was sent to the office, the person who kept a watchful eye on him as he ate his mac and cheese was the principal herself.
The Baltimore school has just 246 students, and each is known by every adult who works in the building.
But that intimate atmosphere comes with a high price tag — it adds about $940 a year to the cost of each student's education.
"This school doesn't make fiscal sense," said Abbottston principal Cathleen Miles. But "it makes sense for children. It makes sense for us. We really love this school the way it is."
About a third of the city's schools enroll fewer than 350 students. Educators agree that small schools help foster a positive learning environment. But school system leaders are grappling with whether they can afford the additional $13 million they cost.
Consultants hired by city schools CEO Sonja Santelises have concluded that the added expense of operating small schools is one of the reasons the Baltimore school system faced a $130 million budget shortfall for the coming year— equivalent to roughly 10 percent of the system's budget. Santelises, hired in July, asked for the analysis as she developed a plan to close the gap.
Her budget spending plan for the year that begins July 1, balanced with a mix of spending cuts and new funding from the city and state, will be presented to the school board Tuesday.
State and city officials have pledged $180 million over three years. Santelises said she could reduce next year's deficit by cutting $30 million from the district's central office and tapping reserve funds. A portion of the remaining cuts would come from schools.
Critics have said district leaders need to do more to control unnecessary spending. Gov. Larry Hogan has suggested some money is "wasted."
Education Resource Strategies, a nonprofit Santelises hired with foundation money, did not specifically address that claim. But it identified several "drivers" — areas where the city system is spending more than neighboring school districts — as responsible for its perennial fiscal problems.
In addition to small schools, ERS pointed to the unique and costly benefits in the 2010 teachers contract that made city faculty among the highest paid in Maryland.
The starting salary for teachers in Baltimore is $48,400, 7 percent more than the $45,100 in neighboring — and higher scoring —Baltimore County.
Union leaders say they have research to show that the city hiring package attracted better, more experienced teachers who have raised student achievement.
School leaders also committed several years ago to dedicating an increasing amount — $35 million in its operating budget this year — to help rebuild and renovate the district's aging schools.
A decade's worth of such policy decisions aimed at improving struggling schools are piling up and growing more expensive each year.
"We have made strategic choices over a number of years," Santelises said. "These were all good choices. They are not incidental. They are not mismanagement, nor are they frivolous."
The Baltimore school system spends about $15,000 per pupil — about $2,000 more per pupil than Baltimore County, and significantly more than other neighboring jurisdictions.
System leaders are looking for ways to reduce spending on these and some of them, as well as other drivers, including special education.
Officials are in negotiations with the teachers union to control costs, and particularly the cost of benefits. They are planning to close more than 20 schools in the next couple of years, consolidating some that are small or underused.
In some cases, declining enrollments have left classrooms empty. In other cases, the school system has intentionally reduced enrollments, cutting large, unwieldy high schools in particular to make them more manageable and keep students from getting lost in the system.
As Abottston's enrollment declined, leaders decided to keep the solid old school — built in 1931, with an annex added in 1962 — and allow The Stadium School to move into the building and share the space. Large classrooms were cut in half to keep class sizes small.
Miles, the principal, said parents seem to appreciate the closely knit feel of the school. Enrollment has grown in the last several years from less than 200 to the current 246.
Miles said keeping the school small is a balancing act that requires her to take on different roles and find volunteer help and grants.
She says she sometimes faces class sizes that are too large because there is only one teacher per grade. There's no assistant principal, and if the one secretary is out sick, she might have to help answer the phones and staff the front desk.
But she believes the environment will improve academics and reduce behavior problems. She has suspended just two children this year.
District leaders decided more than a decade ago to divide large high schools with 1,500 to 2,000 students into smaller ones. Now many high schools have fewer than 1,000 students.
Northern High School, for instance, was broken into three schools, two of which remained in the same building.
While staying small can help students feel more connected to their teachers, principals say such schools often have limitations.
Craig Rivers, principal of Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, has worked at small high schools, but now leads the largest one in Baltimore.
With 1,700 students and a large cadre of teachers, he said, he has the flexibility to offer classes, including Advanced Placement courses, that a small high school can't. And students have more choices of competitive sports teams and afterschool activities.
Keith Scroggins, the school district's chief operating officer, says the city has too many schools that are expensive to operate because they are half- or three-quarters full. That means there are more boilers to break down, roofs to fix, and bills to pay.
Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in East Baltimore enrolls 855 students in a building that could hold 1,200. With the cost of electricity, water, natural gas and steam for the school running $543,000 a year, the school system could save money by consolidating schools and adding another 300 students to the building.
Even with the pending consolidations and closings, the city will likely not be as efficient as school systems in Howard and Baltimore counties.
Baltimore County, where enrollment is booming, is now replacing its small elementary schools with buildings to hold 700 students. The city's elementary schools generally hold 300 to 500 students.
The city has 30,000 fewer students than the county, but eight more schools.
Miles believes the city might need to reduce the number of schools to meet the needs of the current student enrollment.
"In the meantime, you don't close a good school that has 250 children."