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Explanation of city schools deficit doesn't add up

Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton has been giving briefings to lawmakers in Annapolis about the system's projected $60 million budget deficit and his plans to tackle it in hopes that they will reverse the $35 million in additional cuts the system faces in Gov. Larry Hogan's budget. But what he has said so far doesn't quite add up.

Mr. Thornton — who, in fairness, has only been on the job since last summer and is preparing his first budget for the system — has couched the shortfall as the product of several important but expensive strategies for improving student achievement. He has identified the city's landmark pay-for-performance contracts for teachers and administrators as a leading cause of the projected shortfall, saying they have proved more difficult to anticipate than the old system of predictable seniority raises. He has cited the need for the system to contribute to the $1 billion construction and renovation plan the General Assembly approved two years ago. And he has pointed to expenses for pre-Kindergarten programs, which he correctly cites as a worthy investment in reducing achievement gaps. The need for the system to replenish its rainy day fund, from which it spent $27.5 million during the last two years, also plays a role, he says.

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But when pressed for details, the answers he and his staff gave lead to the conclusion that there's more going on here. The contribution for school construction and maintenance is $13 million and was entirely predictable. The system agreed to it two years ago. The pre-K cost Mr. Thornton cited is $4 million and is not actually an expansion of pre-K but rather the product of shifting money from one part of the budget to another. The system does not have to pay back the $27.5 million but rather to contribute enough to make sure the rainy day fund amounts to at least 3 percent of the operating budget. That will cost about $3.5 million and can be spread out over the next several years.

That leaves the salary increases tied to the pay-for-performance contracts. In an interview, Mr. Thornton pegged the cost of salary increases for the next fiscal year at about $22 million. But, as he was careful to note, that's not $22 million over and above what the district would have been on the hook for under a traditional contract. Just how much extra it costs, he wasn't able to say, nor was his staff. A spokeswoman said the district has tried to figure that out but has been unable to because of the many variables involved.

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We need better. We need to know whether this promising approach of rewarding the best teachers is really boosting achievement by attracting and retaining the best teachers, and we need to know how much it costs.

Baltimore's contract allows teachers to receive raises based on professional training, their willingness to take on extra responsibilities and their ability to help students meet learning objectives designed in consultation with their schools' principals. But is it working? Are the standards stringent enough and geared specifically enough to objective measures of achievement?

When it comes to standardized tests, the best that can be said about city students' performance is that we don't really know how well they're doing. Scores have been down during the last few years in Baltimore and elsewhere, but officials have explained that as a product of the transition to a new curriculum based on the Common Core standards. As for attracting and retaining good teachers, Mr. Thornton admits there's more work to do. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that fewer veteran teachers are retiring, but the district nonetheless opened the school year with an unusually large number of vacancies in the teaching corps and had to rely on long-term substitutes.

If Mr. Thornton thought going to Annapolis and crying poverty would help his cause, he was mistaken. Two years ago, legislators from other parts of the state overcame a history of distrust for the city schools' fiscal management and agreed to a novel — and expensive — construction funding plan. A new and poorly explained budget shortfall is not likely to inspire them to take more extraordinary measures on the district's behalf — particularly since the city government contributes to the school system at one of the lowest rates in the state. The system used the rainy day fund in the last two years to pay for programs it couldn't otherwise afford. Not only has it failed to find a way to solve that problem but it has gotten worse, and there are no longer sufficient reserves to paper it over. That doesn't inspire much confidence.

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This is the time for Mr. Thornton to lay everything out in the greatest possible detail. He says he can put the system on a path to fiscal sustainability and that efforts boosting achievement will take time to work. But he needs to be a lot more specific than he has been about what is driving the deficit and how we can be sure that those investments are paying off.

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