Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises is prepared to lay off more than 1,000 employees, from classroom teachers to custodians, in order to close a $130 million budget gap. (Emma Patti Harris/Baltimore Sun video)
Parents and teachers in Baltimore City schools are getting fed up with the effort to resolve the system's projected $130 million budget deficit next year, and for good reason. When Mayor Catherine Pugh promises attendees at a rally on Thursday that she'll have a plan on Monday, and then on Monday she announces that she's working on it, that doesn't inspire confidence.
This budget issue isn't a surprise. System CEO Sonja Santelises went public with it in December. Ms. Pugh, Gov. Larry Hogan and the General Assembly have had plenty of time to, at the very least, come up with a plan to stave off the worst possible consequences of the shortfall for the next school year, if not to find a bridge to cover the estimated three years until the state adopts new school funding formulas. But the longer this drags on, the worse the problem is going to become. Before long, good teachers are going to start looking for jobs elsewhere, and parents are going to start house hunting in the suburbs. If they do, the system's financial problems, which are driven in large measure by declining enrollment, will only get worse. This is a crucial moment, not just for current students and parents but for the city's future.
The people most closely involved with the system clearly get it. The district has set up a website, engage.baltimorecityschools.org, that lays out the various drivers of the deficit and the district's efforts to address them. Governor Hogan, Mayor Pugh, members of the General Assembly and the City Council need to read it, not for the charts and graphs Ms. Santelises' office has provided but for the comments teachers, parents and others have posted on each page. They describe the challenges teachers face as they attempt to instruct students who are disproportionately poor and who frequently require special education services — not to mention extra care to cope with violence and trauma many of them have been forced to witness. They show the struggles of parents who want to stay committed to their neighborhood schools but who worry about perennial budget crises that result in huge class sizes and the elimination of the programs that attracted them in the first place. And they offer insight into the messages children receive when they go to schools with broken windows, water they can't drink and heat that doesn't work.
The district's responsibility
No question, part of the solution requires strong management from the superintendent. The cost of health and other benefits is rising by an average of 6 percent a year while revenue is declining by 1.5 percent annually. More than a third of the district's schools have fewer than 350 students, which creates inefficiencies and inhibits the ability to provide the full range of needed services. In Howard County, the figure is 2 percent. We expect that some sharing of resources between the school system and city government — as Baltimore County has done in recent years — could produce efficiencies, and steps the city government has taken to rein in benefits costs can and should be applied to the schools as well.
But the idea that Baltimore maintains a bloated central administration is outdated. More than 70 percent of district staff are in direct instructional roles; that's higher than the statewide average of 68.8 percent and higher than the percentage in Baltimore, Montgomery and Prince George's counties. That's in part because previous rounds of budget cuts have sought to spare individual schools as much as possible, but it also means there are fewer places to go for cuts that don't directly affect students in the classroom. Five years ago, the district had one custodian per 20,000 square feet of space; now it's one per 120,000. The district already eliminated its grants office; it can't do it again.
Baltimore City teachers are paid better than their counterparts in many districts, but that's based on a recognition that the job is harder and the working conditions less appealing. The city needs to pay more to attract good teachers, and the career pathways embedded in the district's innovative teacher contract, which are also a driver of the system's budget woes, are necessary to keep them and provide them with incentives to get even better.
The state's role
Governor Hogan's staff have pointed out that his budget includes record funding for education, and that's true, but simply a result of legally mandated spending formulas. It's also true that because of those formulas, the state will provide the city schools with $42 million less next year than this year. Part of that is because of enrollment declines — the district is expected to have about 1,000 fewer students next year — and part is because the city is becoming wealthier, at least on paper. The city's property wealth has grown at double the statewide average in recent years, which makes it fare worse under state education funding formulas, which provide more to poorer jurisdictions and less to wealthier ones. But much of the growth in recent years comes from developments that received assorted tax breaks — a necessity, officials insist, given the city's sky-high property tax rate — meaning the city government doesn't have the money to make up for the state cuts. An effort to solve that problem proved elusive last year and has now been wrapped up into a larger discussion about state education funding being led by the so-called Kirwan Commission, which is charged with recommending updates to the existing formulas.
The Hogan administration has noted that Baltimore City receives the second-highest level of state support for its schools — also true, but a reflection of the fact that the city has the highest concentration of poor students and of students requiring special education services. Baltimore's rate of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches is double the state average, and the percentage of students living in extreme poverty is triple the state figure. On average, 11 percent of Maryland students require special education services, but in the city, the figure is 18 percent. Consultants studying state education funding concluded that Maryland should be providing Baltimore with an extra $385 million a year to meet its constitutional requirement to provide an adequate public education. If the state had even kept up with the requirements of the current funding formula over the years, which were reduced in various ways during the recession, Baltimore schools wouldn't have a deficit at all.
It's also true that local funding makes up a smaller share of Baltimore's school budget than that of nearly any other jurisdiction in the state. Mayor Pugh said during the campaign that she believes the city should contribute more, and we agree that needs to be part of the solution, if for no other reason than to demonstrate to leaders throughout the rest of the state that Baltimore is committed to its schools. But a greater local contribution can't solve the problem alone. Baltimore residents are already taxed at a rate far higher than that in any other jurisdiction, and the city has competing needs, from social services to police protection, that outstrip those of any Maryland county.
We appreciate that the governor continues to have what all sides say is a productive dialogue with the city and school system about what the state can do to contribute to the solution. Last year, Mr. Hogan provided the district with an extra $12.7 million to help cushion the effect of declining enrollment, and he made similar contributions to some rural counties as well. But the scale of this year's problem, and the corrosive effect on teachers, parents and students of annual budget crises, calls for a more substantial and lasting solution.
Ultimately, that should come from the Kirwan Commission in the form of state funding formulas that better reflect the impact of concentrated poverty on educational needs and which account for the paper wealth problem in Baltimore and a number of other jurisdictions. But best case scenario, that might come into play three years from now. In the meantime, the district needs a predictable, reasonable, multi-year commitment from the city and state to stave off the worst of the cuts it now faces.
Pugh must take the lead
Time is of the essence, and not just because the clock is ticking on the annual 90-day General Assembly session. City principals, who have substantial autonomy in deciding how to spend their funds, now know how much they face in cuts next year, and they are in the process of translating that into a plan for staffing and services. The district is providing guidance on the parameters they must work within, but they are also engaged in meetings with parents, teachers and the broader community they serve to determine each school's priorities.
The choices aren't good. Would a school community be willing to accept larger class sizes to preserve arts and music programs? Would eliminating a special academic program also eliminate the reason many parents choose to send their kids to a school in the first place? Should an elementary school combine the fourth and fifth grades so the principal can make first grade classes smaller?
To their credit, thousands of city parents are now engaged in that process, even if they resent being put in a position where they have to be. There is no sign yet of a massive run to the suburbs, but if the problem recurs next year and the year after, it will erode parents' confidence and prompt more and more of those who have a choice to pull out of city schools. The more that happens, the worse the situation will get, and the more parents will leave.
The disappointment of Mayor Pugh's non-announcement on Monday pushed the city a little bit closer to that negative cycle, but she can take steps to correct the course. Even as she is negotiating for help from the governor and crafting her own budget plan, Mayor Pugh should announce a specific commitment to increased school aid in next year's budget. Doing so would put pressure on Governor Hogan to follow suit, but more importantly, it would be a sign of good faith for Baltimore's parents and children. Governor Hogan has the resources and the constitutional duty responsibility to ensure an adequate education for Baltimore's children, and he should be responsible for most of the solution to the current budget crisis. But Mayor Pugh is the one Baltimore voters elected to make this a better, more just city with opportunities for all. She needs to take the lead.