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What took Thornton so long?

Baltimore City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton says he has "not been asleep" during the nine months he's been at the helm of the district and has been working on strategies to set its budget on a sustainable path. But if that's the case, he certainly could have done a better job of waking up city and state officials, parents, teachers and administrators about the financial difficulties the district faces, which he now says will force him to make $63 million in cuts. All of them have been caught off guard by the severity of the problem, which Mr. Thornton first started to talk about in private briefings with lawmakers and others last month, and none of them appear prepared for the scope of the corrective actions the CEO now proposes to make, which include layoffs for teachers and administrators.

A number of the cuts Mr. Thornton has identified sound sensible enough on the surface. When a student transfers from one school to another, why would the district continue to send funding for him or her to the old one — in addition to the new one? Does it make sense to maintain a pool of 209 teachers and administrators with no permanent assignment to a school? Spending $5 million to transport kids in taxis certainly does sound like an "outrage," as Mr. Thornton put it.

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But that doesn't necessarily mean these reductions will have no impact on kids in the classroom. The reason the district has maintained a pool of surplus personnel since at least 2008 is to fill vacancies or act as long-term substitutes so that children don't find themselves being taught by someone who isn't certified in a given subject. Given that the district opened this year with scores of vacancies filled with substitutes, that's no idle concern. The double-funding of students who transfer (usually from a traditional school to a charter school) intuitively sounds wasteful, but it doesn't necessarily mean the money was being spent on bon bons. When a student goes from one school to another, not all of the expenses associated with him or her follow. You still need a principal and janitors, you need to pay the electric bill, and you may well still need as many teachers. We have no doubt that some savings can fairly be squeezed from both areas, but how much can be done without hurting kids is a matter worthy of debate.

Moreover, matters could get worse. Mr. Thornton has identified savings totaling $63 million, but when the $35 million in cuts to city schools in Gov. Larry Hogan's budget are factored in, the system's deficit for fiscal 2016 balloons to $108 million. Mr. Thornton and other city officials are scrambling to build support for efforts in the legislature to restore those cuts, but that's no sure thing. The same is true for some of the savings Mr. Thornton has already identified, which will require negotiations with the unions.

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The public will get a chance to weigh in on Mr. Thornton's ideas. In an email to parents and other stakeholders Wednesday, he outlined the problem and his proposed solutions in the broadest of terms and announced three forums next week for the public to provide feedback. But that process really should have begun long ago.

The city school system's shaky finances cannot possibly have been a surprise to Mr. Thornton. He was picked for the job last February and started in July. In April, the district announced a $31 million deficit in the fiscal 2015 budget, which officials eventually papered over by taking from the system's rainy day fund. Mr. Thornton was on notice from his very first day on the job, or at least should have been, that things were seriously awry on North Avenue. But instead of taking the kind of immediate steps that would have been necessary to align the system's expenses with its available funds, he is handling it now, nine months later, as part of the normal budget process. Had he treated the situation as the emergency it was and taken action sooner, he might not have needed to cut so deeply, and he would have had more time to build community support for his solutions. He could not, of course, have predicted the kind of hit the system would take in the state budget for fiscal 2016, but earlier action would at least have put him in a stronger position to plead his case in Annapolis.

Mr. Thornton gets points, we suppose, for not merely throwing up his hands and begging for more money from the city or state, as some of his predecessors have done in similar situations. But he still hasn't given a satisfactory explanation for now the district got into this mess nor for how he will manage his proposed cuts in the least intrusive way. He needs to do better.

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