Baltimore schools CEO: No commitments yet from State House, City Hall to close funding gap

Baltimore school officials are asking state and city lawmakers for $65 million to shrink their $130 million budget deficit and avert more than 1,000 layoffs. But schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she has "no firm commitments" from the State House...

Baltimore schools CEO: No commitments yet from State House, City Hall to close funding gap

Baltimore school officials are asking state and city lawmakers for $65 million to shrink their $130 million budget deficit and avert more than 1,000 layoffs. But schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she has "no firm commitments" from the State House or City Hall.

Even with additional money, Santelises said, the district won't escape cuts to teachers and schools — which officials mostly avoided when faced with budget shortfalls in recent years.

The lingering question is just how deep the cuts will be.

"We held our schools harmless for as long as possible," Santelises said at a school board meeting Tuesday night. She said the budget problems were "not a surprise," and that she was quick to tell city and state officials of their potential impact.

About 180 principals in Baltimore gathered Friday for a glimpse of their schools under the fiscal belt-tightening. The funding per student at traditional schools would plunge by $1,093, or nearly 20 percent compared to last year. Charter schools would see funding per student drop $494, or 5 percent.

The Baltimore school system is facing a $129 million deficit in next fiscal year's budget, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said Wednesday, the largest gap in recent years.

School officials have been grappling with declining enrollment and increasing operating costs.

Santelises said she was not...

The Baltimore school system is facing a $129 million deficit in next fiscal year's budget, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said Wednesday, the largest gap in recent years.

School officials have been grappling with declining enrollment and increasing operating costs.

Santelises said she was not...

Traditional and charter schools would receive $4,585 and $8,778 per student, respectively. Charters receive addition money in lieu of services from the school system's central office, such as meals and busing.

"It was a difficult meeting, to say the least," Santelises said. "Every school in the district experienced a decrease in funding, and to some it was extreme."

The principals have begun crafting their own school budgets based on the decreased amounts.

Parent organizers at Medfield Heights Elementary in North Baltimore sent a notice to families saying their school faced a cut of at least $300,000. Roland Park Elementary Middle School, nearly three times larger, is facing a cut of more than $1 million, Spanish teacher Kimberly Mooney said.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the school system is facing a $129 million deficit in next fiscal year's budget, the largest gap in recent years. (Baltimore Sun video)

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the school system is facing a $129 million deficit in next fiscal year's budget, the largest gap in recent years. (Baltimore Sun video)

Mooney said the school district should be asking officials for $130 million, no less.

"I would like to hear a lot more from the district about what they are asking, so that parents and students and teachers can stand together and rally behind them," she said. "We're all in this together."

In a statement Wednesday, the district noted a state-commissioned report from December that found city schools require $358 million more per year to be adequately funded.

"In that light, it is remarkable that our budget gap this year is not even greater," school officials said in the statement. They said the state must overhaul its funding formula, which prescribes money for school districts based on the jurisdiction's property values and student enrollment. The formula has stripped the district millions of dollars in recent years, in part because not all new developments counted by the formula are paying full taxes. Enrollment has also declined.

The formula prescribed a $42 million cut in state aide to city schools in next year's budget.

"We are seeking a multi-year commitment for increased revenue that will help us bridge budget gaps until the new state funding formula is in place," the system said.

In the State House and City Hall, lawmakers have offered support for Santelises, but haven't gone publicly offered more money. A spokeswoman for Gov. Larry Hogan said the Republican has not received an official request from the schools for money, but is open to discussions.

"Governor Hogan has provided record funding for education for three years in a row, and it will continue to be a focus of the administration," Amelia Chasse, the spokeswoman, said in a statement.

Democratic Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has said the city is "scraping its coffers" to help and is also asking businesses and charities to pitch in.

"Are we out there now trying to make sure we close this budget gap? Absolutely," Pugh told The Baltimore Sun in a recent interview. She said she has asked members of the philanthropic and business community to "think about assisting us over the next two or three years."

The mayor said on WYPR Tuesday that she has traveled to Annapolis to ask for more money.

Pugh said she also wants to ensure the city's contributions to young people outside of school funding aren't overlooked. This year, the city is launching an $11 million youth fund to pay for programs for children and teens. The city also contributes money to privately run after-school programs, such as the Family League.

In Annapolis, Democratic Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said he's spoken to Santelises about the budget deficit. Though he found her to be a "lovely person, very engaged," Miller did not commit to seeking more money for city schools. Maryland is dealing a $544 million budget gap.

"Before the General Assembly is going to come up with more funds, she's going to have to demonstrate to the chief executive and the budget committees ... what adjustments she's making," said Miller, who represents parts of Calvert and Prince George's counties.

Democratic House Speaker Michael E. Busch said budget leaders were "scrubbing" requests from Baltimore for more school funding, but no decisions had been made.

"The question of whether it's going to be sixty-five million or not is up for debate," said Busch, who represents Anne Arundel County. "We certainly understand the challenge of the Baltimore city schools."

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said the Republican caucus supports helping kids in the classroom, but "this is a problem with management."

Kipke, who represents Anne Arundel County, said he would not back extra money for city schools unless it was tied to a plan to fix the city's chronic budget problems and deal with systemic shortfalls caused by declining enrollment.

In December, Santelises — in her first year as CEO — revealed the $130 million shortfall for the budget year that begins July 1. It's the largest budget gap the district has faced in recent history. School officials have cited declining enrollment, rising teacher salaries, an ambitious school construction program and pre-kindergarten as contributors to the deficit.

The school district expects to lose nearly 1,000 students next year. Enrollment stands at about 82,000 students. According to the district, state funding for city schools will have decreased $79 million over four fiscal years by this July. The city's contributions, however, will have edged up by $13 million over those years.

City Council President Bernard "Jack" Young said city officials are trying to help the schools, but noted the city is facing a $20 million deficit of its own.

To save money, City officials in recent years have cut contributions to pension and health care benefits for employees and retirees. Young suggested the school system undergo a city audit and merge some functions, such as IT and payroll, with city government.

"The school system needs to do what they can to close the budget gap," he said. "They need to be talking with the unions and doing some of the things the city did to cut costs. I've been a person that's been very outspoken that we need to give more to the school system. But I don't want to put money in a cup that's leaking."

Young suggested the state and federal governments should pitch in more, too.

"We've done a number of things to help the school system," Young said. "We pay for the crossing guards and nurses. Can we do more? Yes. I don't know how much we can do. I'm going to work with the administration to try to come up with something."

The $130 million gap amounts to 10 percent of the school system's $1.3 billion budget. Santelises has said furloughs, layoffs, cuts to art classes and other enrichment programs are being considered under a working plan to close the gap.

Santelises has said she would look to the school system's central office for $10 million in savings by cutting spending within each department by 10-to-15 percent. But cuts to the central office alone can't close the gap, and $80 million would be taken from schools, Santelises has said.

Senate Minority Leader J.B. Jennings said it would be "tough" for lawmakers to approve more money for city schools.

"You get frustrated on one hand because the city's not managing their funds and we're always bailing them out," said Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties.

Jennings said legislators are "caught between a rock and a hard place."

"You want to hold the city accountable," he said, "but you don't want to penalize the children."

Baltimore Sun reporter Erin Cox contributed to this article.

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The Baltimore Education Coalition plans to rally for more school funding at 6 p.m. Feb. 23 outside the State House in Annapolis.

Baltimore schools have also scheduled a series of townhall meetings on the budget. Most meetings run from 6 to 8 p.m.

•March 13 at Frederick Douglass High School

•March 15 at Baltimore City College

•April 3 at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School

•April 5, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Edmondson-Westside High School

•April 6 at New Era Academy

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