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Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has asked city agencies to prepare for 5% budget cuts to help pay for Baltimore's share of a proposed statewide education plan.
Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young has asked city agencies to prepare for 5% budget cuts to help pay for Baltimore's share of a proposed statewide education plan. (Ulysses Muoz / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young is asking city agencies to plan to reduce their budgets 5% by 2022 in anticipation of an expensive plan to improve local schools, according to a memo distributed to staff.

The document provides new insight into how a cash-strapped city is preparing for the possibility it will have to nearly double its spending on public education over the next decade based on a revamped state funding formula.

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A Maryland commission studying how to improve the state’s education system, known as the Kirwan Commission, endorsed a plan Thursday that would eventually require $4 billion more to be spent each year on public schools. The state would kick in billions to pay for this plan, while the majority of counties would also have to dramatically up their contributions to education spending.

Baltimore City would be required to spend roughly $330 million more per year on schools by 2030, while receiving $500 million more in education aid from the state. Young has pledged to go “all in” on Kirwan recommendations and find a way to fund it, despite the city’s limited resources. The city’s budget is $2.9 billion.

“You can’t get there without having tough conversations around spending priorities,” said spokesman Lester Davis. “This won’t be a painless exercise.”

Young wrote in a November budget memo, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, that the city must begin planning for the anticipated costs immediately.

“Given the magnitude of the potential increase, we cannot afford to wait,” he wrote.

He asked agency heads to rank their priorities from most to least important. “This ranking will help us to reach a mutual understanding of which higher priority services to preserve,” he wrote.

Since the Kirwan Commission unveiled its proposals, some local and state politicians have expressed concern at its massive price tag. But advocates say the plan represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that every child receives a quality education and must be fully funded no matter what.

The money would pay to increase teacher salaries, bring in more counselors, improve career preparation programs, give extra support to schools serving children who live in poverty and expand free, full-day prekindergarten. The commission set its goal as returning Maryland’s schools to the best in the nation.

The commission did not recommend where the additional funding should come from. State lawmakers in the Democratic-led General Assembly are now tasked with looking at ways to generate money for the plan’s initial years.

Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, has insisted that the extra spending on education will result in a significant tax increase. That’s been decried as a scare tactic by supporters of the plan, and Davis says it’s too premature to talk about that in the city. Baltimore’s local income tax is already set at the highest rate allowable in the state, and raising the property tax could be a politically devastating move.

General Assembly leaders insist there are a myriad of other options, including, down the road, potentially using money collected from legalized marijuana.

On the local level, county leaders across Maryland are grappling with how to send more money to their schools. When the spending is fully phased in, Baltimore County, for example, would need to add $88 million to its annual education funding, while Anne Arundel would have to put in another $98 million.

Through a spokesman, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. said he’s committed to funding the Kirwan recommendations.

The formula hits some counties harder than others. In Howard County, where the plan does not call for an increase in local funding, officials say they’re monitoring the changes as the school district works toward presenting its budget next month.

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Harford County will have to contribute $9.2 million more over a decade, which is a “doable amount,” County Executive Barry Glassman said.

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said every jurisdiction is crunching the numbers.

Making cuts in other government programs to pay for education is a challenging prospect, he said. Not only would citizens see a decline in services, but it will be difficult for local governments to generate tens of millions of dollars through these cuts. Education already is the largest category of spending in almost all counties, he said.

“You can make whatever cutbacks you want to in your parks department or in public works," he said, “but it’s hard to come up with enough money to move the needle for education.”

Baltimore’s Finance Director Henry Raymond said “it’s premature to discuss what the reductions might potentially look like" because it’s early in the city’s planning process.

Young has asked agencies to submit a 2-year budget plan that achieves a 5% reduction by fiscal year 2022. By that year, the Kirwan plan calls for the city to contribute more than $100 million in additional education funding.

“I know that a reduction of this magnitude would hurt, and I need an honest assessment of the pain,” he wrote. Young said agencies should ask themselves how they can collaborate with others to leverage resources.

Budget proposals are due back to his office Dec. 13. Raymond said the cuts they’re looking at could save the city about $70 million in one year.

“We all recognize that the funding level is significant and will require a complete rethink of how we budget and finance the city’s operations," Raymond said.

Davis said the 5% cut is benchmark and one of many options the city is considering.

Certain agency costs are non-negotiable, such as those pertaining to requirements laid out in the federal consent decree between Baltimore and the U.S. Department of Justice mandating sweeping police reforms. The city spends more than $500 million a year on its police department.

At a Thursday night forum, members of the interfaith organization BUILD pressed Young to commit to fulfilling the city’s anticipated contribution to the Kirwan plan.

“We acknowledge it’s a big lift, but the risk of not funding it is much higher,” said senior BUILD organizer Rachel Brooks. In Baltimore, where many children live in poverty and deal with the compounded impact of trauma, reading and math scores have long lagged behind those of students in other, wealthier counties. The city school system has dealt with decades of under-investment, according to state studies, and advocates say the Kirwan Commission’s promise of more funding is a vital step toward equity.

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“It’s important the rest of the state sees Baltimore isn’t asking for a handout,” Brooks said. “We’ll give our fair share.”

During the BUILD meeting, Young announced he would devote an additional $25 million to city schools next year as a “down payment on Kirwan.”

“In 2020 and beyond,” he said, “I will make sure we fulfill our Kirwan Commission obligation to our students and our schools.”

Baltimore Sun Media reporters Pamela Wood, Wilborn P. Nobles III, Jess Nocera and Erika Butler contributed to this article.

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