City school sweats budget Hurting at Patapsco: The Baltimore system is struggling to improve education with less funding. At Patapsco Elementary, the decision process over what to cut is agonizing.

April 29, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

On the day of reckoning at Patapsco Elementary, the staff gathered after school around pint-sized library tables and passed peppermints for sustenance.

Principal Yvonne Howard reached for lemon-colored chalk and began the accounting.

As the sound of children's laughter in the hallway faded to silence, Ms. Howard wrote the numbers that tell the story of her school's struggle to improve while losing funds.

Her firm strokes filled two green chalkboards and were punctuated by the teachers' deep sighs.

"I guess you have seen me walking around the school with a sour face," Ms. Howard said, clapping the chalk dust from her hands. "You know this is going to amount to a loss in materials and personnel."

It is budget time at the Cherry Hill neighborhood school and all across Baltimore's school system.

Each principal receives an allocation to manage -- a share of the school system's $650 million budget for next year.

In all, the city's 183 principals will directly manage about $314 million next year. With their school leadership teams, each must decide by Friday what to buy, to keep or to cut.

This time, as often before, many city schools are reconciling sprawling wish lists with no-growth budgets. Because every decision and every dollar affects children -- and the job security of the people hunched over the budgets -- debates heat up.

The decision-making is tense, frequently grim, but sometimes ingenious and often rewarding.

Patapsco has a base budget of $1,081,039 to spend next year on teachers and staff, programs, books, events, training, telephone bills, cleaning, postage -- most of the things that define the place as a school. That is $232,861 less than this year.

"I spent about four hours Sunday working on this, and I got so depressed I had to put it aside. I just wasn't used to this," she told the 10 teachers and parents before her. "We have a successful program, and with the budget cuts, I fear we will not be as able to deliver that."

Patapsco gets an additional $271,000 for special education staff.

Central office departments manage the budgets covering utilities, cafeteria, grounds maintenance, capital improvements, buses and security.

Ms. Howard's basic education budget is hurting now because it is tied to enrollment, which is declining. Her share is based on 329 children, down from 380 from last school year.

Public housing renovations in Cherry Hill have moved families from the area.

Within Patapsco's allocation is city and state money, down to about $808,000 from $941,000. The budget also includes her federal Title 1 grant, awarded because many of her students come from poor families: This has fallen to about $274,000 from $373,000.

"Everybody's going to take on more next year," Ms. Howard said, delivering her bad news with a rap of the chalk against the board.

Her leadership team of teachers, administrators and a parent shook their heads.

First, she asked them to keep all of the full-time teachers. Most other staffing, she told them, was negotiable.

"Not her!" the team members agonized when Ms. Howard proposed cutting the school's lone library assistant.

The school has not had a professional librarian for years. The library, decorated and organized by the staff with a $7,000 donation from a local businessman, would become self-serve.

Teachers would have to organize and reshelve their own books, teach library skills to their students, maintain the collection and monitor their students alone during the weekly 40-minute library period.

"What if we eliminate the physical education position and keep ++ the library position?" proposed Teresa Taylor, a second-grade teacher.

Her peers nodded. "We're really going to miss the librarian. Phys ed is something we're used to doing already."

The school didn't replace a part-time physical education instructor who left this year, so teachers have been leading their pupils to the gym and a grass plot outside.

They give up some time they normally would spend in planning. In the end, they cut both positions -- but preserved art and music instructors who work two days a week. They also eliminated a paid parent liaison.

Ms. Howard looked for other savings, too.

How about the lunch-room aides paid to monitor rambunctious children at breakfast and lunch? she asked her team. Teachers could do it, giving up their lunch respite.

"Hey, I need some time for chilling out," a teacher piped up, and the others laughed.

Parent Kevin Cook, whose night job allowed him daytime to volunteer in his child's school, offered to take on the dreaded duty.

He was talked out of it: The aides will stay.

Should Ms. Howard stop hiring parents to work in the school? She doesn't want to. "There is a direct correlation between the school's climate and students' behavior and the presence in the school of parents."

The team reluctantly approved her recommendation to cut the parents' wages from $7 an hour to $5 an hour.

The attendance monitor's wage was cut, too. The team worried whether these hard workers would stay with school.

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