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School board adopts Thornton budget, but funding questions remain

Baltimore city schools adopt $1.3 billion budget

The Baltimore city school board voted Monday to adopt a $1.3 billion budget proposed by schools CEO Gregory Thornton, but a funding increase for neighborhood schools remains in limbo and charter school leaders say they're being shortchanged.

The 5-2 vote came after board commissioners and city residents expressed concern about the budget, particularly funding shortages and equity for traditional and charter schools.

Commissioner David Stone, who voted against the budget, said funding for charter schools and the lack of funding for programs serving advanced students are among issues he felt were not addressed. The other vote against the budget came from Commissioner Tina Hike-Hubbard.

"I feel more like I'm standing on sand than firm ground," Stone said.

Thornton faced a $108 million deficit as he formulated his first budget since becoming CEO last year. The budget includes at least 100 layoffs. The budget process has been met with consternation from the residents who complained about a lack of transparency and unanswered questions.

Thornton also has been criticized for his decision to cut summer programs. The backlash led him to fully restore one that allows high school students to take advanced placement courses in the summer.

Others, however, have praised his effort to make new investments, such as having the arts offered in all elementary schools next year. Arts advocates attended the board meeting Monday to thank him for the commitment.

Among the most vocal critics of Thornton's budget are charter school leaders who said that CEO's team made little effort to resolve a longstanding issue of how the district's charter schools are funded.

Last month, representatives of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools, which represents 34 schools and about 13,000 students, told Thornton and the school board that it rejected the $9,387 per-pupil allocation proposed for next year. Coalition leaders said they calculated they should at least receive $10,010 per-pupil if they applied the same arbitrary interpretation of the formula the district used.

On Monday, however, the budget still included the $9,387 figure.

At issue is a funding formula set by state law that gives charter schools cash in lieu of services they don't get from the central office.

The coalition's co-chair Ricarda Easton said that the "district continues to propose funding for charter schools that is not linked to any funding formula at all."

"This is unprecedented," she said. "The coalition does not accept it."

The district funds traditional schools similarly, but after central office costs are deducted they will receive $5,336 per pupil next year. They also receive additional funding for certain student populations, such as an additional $641 for each student with a disability.

Principals use per-pupil funding to pay for everything from teachers to custodians, in addition to programs.

City school officials did not respond to a questions asking whether the system is funding charter schools in accordance to the law. At the board meeting, Thornton said the issue wasn't the charter formula itself, but "how you interpret what's there."

Board members called for Thornton to clarify exactly how the formulas are funded in dollars.

"It's not entirely clear to anyone, even me," Stone said. "And that's scary."

Coalition members also said per-pupil funding for traditional schools falls short, a point reinforced by advocates.

Roxanne Allen, co-chair of the Baltimore Education Coalition, told the board that the group would continue to advocate to have state funds that were cut in Annapolis — about $11.6 million — restored.

The General Assembly voted to provide additional money for education, but Gov. Larry Hogan has not yet decided whether to disperse it.

If that money is restored, district officials said they would increase the amount of money that traditional schools receive per-pupil in the fall.

But by then, charter leaders and advocates said, it will be too late.

Allen said principals already are cutting staff and stockpiling supplies for next year based on the money they've received.

"It's very unfortunate that principals are having to make these decisions," she said.

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