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Best and brightest [Editorial]

In Minnesota Public Radio host Garrison Keillor's mythical town of Lake Woebegone, "all the men are strong, all the women are good-looking, and all the children are above average."

Notwithstanding the statistical improbability of that latter claim, it's at least true of the kids enrolled in the Baltimore City public schools' gifted and talented programs. Whether they're really smarter, or have some special affinity for math or music, or just work harder and stay more focused than their peers really doesn't matter. The point is that for whatever reason they clearly show a lot of potential, and the school board has recognized its responsibility to help them achieve it.

That's why the board's 7-2 vote this week to fully fund programs for gifted students that earlier had been slated for cuts next year, and to tap into the system's rainy day fund to plug the holes left in the budget, was an investment in city's future worth making. The board restored about $30,000 in cuts to the International Baccalaureate programs at City College and the Mount Washington School and maintained funding levels for another program, the Ingenuity Project, which has struggled for years to accommodate all the students eligible to participate.

At a time when so much attention is being focused on efforts to raise achievement levels in the city's failing or underperforming schools, the board's strong show of support for its academically most successful students sends a powerful signal to parents wondering whether their kids can thrive if they remain in the city. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's ambitious plan to attract 10,000 new families to Baltimore over the next 10 years depends in large part on convincing young families that its schools can offer an excellent education to their children. Putting money into the city's gifted and talented programs shows that Baltimore is serious about meeting the needs of the tremendous diversity of young people who could take advantage of an enriched learning environment.

That said, however, we're somewhat troubled by the fact that the board chose to dip into its rainy day fund to sustain these necessary programs. The whole point of that fund is to cover the cost of essential services during emergencies or when unexpected events cause a temporary budget shortfall that can't be closed any other way. But the schools' gifted and talented programs aren't a one-time expense; they're an ongoing commitment whose funding needs to be secured over the long run just like the school system's obligation to heat its buildings and pay the electric bill. Dipping into a rainy day fund when in fact it's not even raining outside sounds to us like the first step toward financial peril.

Moreover, we fear in that taking such a step the board is setting itself up for a situation in which it will face the exact same problem a year from now — only then there will be no money left in the rainy day fund to cover the shortfall. Then how will those programs be funded? The two board members who voted against next year's $1.3 billion school budget were perfectly justified in questioning the wisdom of using emergency funds to pay recurring costs such as the schools' gifted and talented programs. Under the district's funding formula, which allocates resources based on projected enrollments, it's unclear whether they are even sustainable at present levels over the long run.

The gifted and talented programs represent only a relatively small fraction of the original $27.5 million shortfall in next year's budget that prompted board members to dip into the rainy day fund. But similar deficits are forecast to recur in coming years, and it's imperative for the schools to identify a permanent funding source to support the programs. Quality schools are vital to growing Baltimore's population and attracting new investment, which is why the gifted and talented programs play such an outsized role in marketing the virtues of city life. But that can't happen if the programs aimed at serving Baltimore's best and brightest young people are perpetually teetering on the edge of insolvency.


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