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Baltimore needs great schools to be a great economic engine

Principals, teachers, parents, and others in the community gathered outside of City Hall to demand more money for Baltimore City schools. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore could be on the verge of catalyzing a booming state economy — one of Gov. Larry Hogan's chief goals — but not without great schools, which are critical to attracting and retaining talent and also creating a pipeline of future professionals. While significant challenges remain, many of the essential elements for a potentially great school system are in place. They cannot be leveraged, however, if the state's contributions go back to 2009 levels and if Baltimore City's contributions remain stagnant.

When Sonja Santelises began as CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools last summer, she commissioned a review of finances to assess the district's long-term viability. That review uncovered a projected gap of $130 million. The gap is not a product of mismanagement but rather comes from the prospective loss of key state funding — and also the success of targeted investments that have been made to improve student performance and increase enrollment.

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Some facts are important. The gap is not current but prospective, and it reflects a comprehensive and blunt analysis of realistic revenue resources and expenses. Projections are not aspirational but rather intentionally conservative and demand a permanent strategy over a quick fix. The rigorous approach taken by city schools was deemed necessary to the development of lasting solutions.

Our city schools do not seek a bailout; they want to earn an investment. They seek a bridge to the secure funding that can come from increased enrollment and from the Kirwan Commission's upcoming work on a renewed school funding formula.

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This bridge needs to include a shared commitment. We believe that city schools can and should bear a sizable portion of the cost of balancing its budget through carefully-selected cuts that must include eliminating all fat. We also believe that anything more than that could be calamitous.

Laying off large numbers of teachers and dismantling educational resources today in response to a short-term funding crisis will not only harm the students in our classrooms right now, it will inevitably cost us more later to rebuild our professional team of educators and restart projects that were halted prematurely. Large layoffs also increase the risk that enrollment continues to decline as families make other choices. Thinking strategically, it only makes sense to find a way to maintain the progress in which we have already made considerable investments.

For a variety of reasons, the state of Maryland's contribution is slated to be $42 million less in 2018 than this year. Restoring those dollars could make up a significant portion of the proposed gap.

Focused investments have yielded great results. The system has been investing more than $30 million a year in early childhood education, supporting initiatives that increased city Kindergarten readiness scores on the Maryland Model for School Readiness from 57 percent in 2007 to 76 percent in 2014, with city school students outperforming students statewide in 2015 on the more rigorous Kindergarten Readiness Assessment. When three out of four students were not ready for kindergarten it was not surprising that they later struggled in school. With at least three out of four now ready we can expect far better results.

Another $38 million a year in general funds will be invested next year on a $1.1 billion project to build or renovate schools, with additional contributions budgeted for subsequent years. These improved facilities will improve student performance and attract the students and families necessary to a thriving system.

Significant investments have also been made in a new teacher evaluation and promotion system that has delayed tenure, included an analysis of student performance in retaining and promoting teachers, and has rewarded superior teaching. Critics of public education have long called for these kinds of accountability measures. Baltimore is leading the nation in this work.

Long term programmatic and financial success are within our grasp. A growing number of Baltimore's schools are now so successful that they boast long waiting lists. But families who are not accepted often are prompted to choose private education or move to the county. As more schools achieve this level of excellence overall enrollment will grow. A 10 percent enrollment increase would conservatively yield $64 million in revenue.

But we need immediate bridge investments to realize these greater goals. Even with at least three years of restored state funding of $45 million and $20 million from the city, enormous cuts will be required of city schools to fill the gap. But we must move forward with laying the groundwork for a vibrant Maryland economy. The private sector is investing in Baltimore, with more than $25 billion in construction projects underway downtown; the city and state must do the same.

Tom Bozzuto is founder and chairman of The Bozzuto Group, Calvin Butler is CEO of Baltimore Gas & Electric, and Mark Fetting is the former chairman and CEO of Legg Mason. Also contributing are PNC Maryland Regional President Laura Gamble, UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, Shelter Foundation President Pat Joseph, and Tom Wilcox (twilcox@bcf.org), president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. All are current or honorary trustees of The Baltimore Community Foundation.

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