City schools are no 'absolute disaster'

If Hogan can point to waste and profligacy in city schools, we're all ears, but let's focus on the actual prob

The progress Mayor Catherine Pugh announced last week in crafting a plan to soften the impact of Baltimore City schools' projected $130 million deficit was heartening to parents, students and teachers. Gov. Larry Hogan's comments on the matter to date have been less so. Legislators, led by Del. Maggie McIntosh, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee, have identified some sources of funding to cover part of the expected shortfall in the next fiscal year, but even that will require at least some level of cooperation from the governor. And the situation requires more than cooperation from Mr. Hogan. Baltimore schools need a commitment from the city and state to cover a substantial portion of its shortfalls for the three years until the state's education funding formulas are expected to be updated, and unless Mr. Hogan emerges as a champion of the cause, parents and teachers won't have the confidence they need to commit to the system for the long term.

To be sure, Mr. Hogan remains engaged in talks with the mayor, and both sides characterize those discussions as productive. Ms. Pugh has consistently expressed confidence that the governor will provide more money. But Mr. Hogan's public rhetoric has cast the system as profligate and wasteful. He called the system's finances an "absolute disaster" and accused its leaders of "spending as if they thought they were going to get more money." Mr. Hogan floated the idea of tying additional aid to the creation of a financial control board with veto power over system spending.

To be sure, there have been instances of waste and profligacy in the city schools in years past, but the governor has provided no evidence of them now. And under the previous superintendent, a shortfall of nearly $100 million was sprung on lawmakers as a surprise at budget time. But that's not what's happening here. The system's new superintendent, Sonja Santelises, flagged the issue months in advance and is engaged in a very public process of determining school-by-school how to address it if no new city or state money is forthcoming, while at the same time lobbying for aid to soften the cuts. That's not "spending as if they thought they were going to get more money." That's preparing for the worst-case scenario while also working to avoid it.

Everyone needs to bear in mind that Ms. Santelises is dealing with a $42 million cut in state aid next year. That's not a cut to the projected increase, it's an actual reduction in the number of dollars coming through the door from one year to the next. Mr. Hogan thinks the state budget is tight and his options constrained at a time when his general fund revenues are expected to increase by more than $500 million, which represents growth of more than 3 percent. Ms. Santelises' general fund revenues are projected to decline by about $90 million, or 7 percent.

That has nothing to do with mismanagement or inefficiency. It's mainly a function of state funding formulas tied to enrollment, which is expected to decline slightly, and the measured wealth of the city, which has been artificially boosted by tax incentive-fueled development deals.

The district does need to make some hard management choices. Despite downsizing over the years, the system still operates too many schools for too few students. Ms. Santelises and the school board — whose members, it's worth noting, are jointly appointed by the mayor and governor — need to more aggressively consolidate schools to produce greater efficiency. But the fact that they haven't already done more in that regard doesn't make them unusually poor stewards of public money; no school board, whether in the city, the suburbs or a rural county, relishes facing the wrath of parents when schools are closed or district lines redrawn.

But most other big factors in the district's fiscal woes are the predictable result of policy choices. City schools are uniquely on the hook for an extra $35 million a year to help fund a massive overhaul of its aging, antiquated buildings. Surely Mr. Hogan doesn't object to that effort, given his complaints about the lack of air conditioning in many city schools. A new teacher contract that ties professional advancement and salary increases in large part to growth in student achievement — a conservative idea if ever there was one — is costing the district more. Increases in pre-K enrollment are also driving the district's costs, but they have also led to marked increases in Kindergarten readiness.

If Mr. Hogan is aware of waste in the city schools budget, we'd love to hear about it. If he would like to discuss some examples of profligate spending decisions by the board and superintendent, we're all ears. Otherwise, let's deal with the actual problems before us, not old assumptions about the city schools.

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