In the midst of composing his wish list for Baltimore schools, superintendent Walter G. Amprey has to figure out how to absorb a projected $2 million in budget cuts passed down from the state -- cuts that he said could reach all levels of the system, including the classroom.
The loss could "wipe out" the school system's free and reduced-price breakfast program -- now serving 11,300 disadvantaged children daily -- and force cuts in its lunch program for poor students, the superintendent said.
The state has also eliminated funding for 30 prekindergarten programs that give disadvantaged 4-year-olds a head start. That's half of the city's prekindergarten centers.
"It was kind of like the bottom dropped out," Dr. Amprey said at an afternoon news conference yesterday, describing his reaction to news of the cuts. The crunch comes in his third month on the job, when he was just beginning to put together requests for extra state money.
High on that list was expanding the prekindergarten program to every school. About 3,000 to 5,000 students are eligible for the city's 60 programs but are not admitted for lack of space, school officials said. Studies have shown that students in such programs do better in school.
"We have as an administration decided that early childhood education is a focus for our children," said Lillian Gonzalez, deputy superintendent. "And for this to come at this time is truly devastating."
Dr. Amprey hopes to present a strategy for absorbing the cuts by the middle of next week, he said. The school board may decide to make cuts in other areas to keep programs that it deems essential. The priority, he said, will be safeguarding student achievement.
If the school system decides to absorb the cuts with layoffs, at least 50 jobs would be at stake, deputy superintendent Patsy B. Blackshear said.
The school system also is losing another $850,000 in programs provided by other agencies, such as after-school programs, a dropout prevention program and adult education programs.
The cuts deplete a system that is one of the poorest in the state and serves the poorest students; only 40 percent of the student body does not qualify for the free- and reduced-price meals. The state is cutting $600,000 from that program.
And each prekindergarten center closed will affect 40 students, a teacher and a teacher aide.
Dr. Amprey, who has stressed the importance of finding alternatives to government funding, said the cuts provide new evidence that such a move is necessary.
"We think this is just a small example of where government is heading," he said.
Though the bad news is "frustrating," the new superintendent was upbeat. "[The school system is] used to this kind of thing, making chicken salad out of chicken feathers," he said. "We're going to go on and deal with it in positive ways."