City plans school cuts Schmoke aides cite shortfall, blame fight with state over funds

Cuts total $32.4 million

City is 'posturing' over frozen funds, Sen. Hoffman says

July 15, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

Facing a huge shortfall caused by city and state spending decisions, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke has ordered $32.4 million in school budget cuts that will be felt in classrooms this fall.

The total includes millions frozen by state officials who are trying to prod Schmoke to settle a finance lawsuit he filed against the state in September.

It also includes about $14 million in school system expenses that were added to the budget after it was approved by the City Council in the spring.

These will add up to a difficult time for schools in the fall, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said last week. About $25.4 million of the total will be sliced from principals' budgets.

Preliminary estimates show schools will lose about $250 per pupil, said Henry Raymond, school finance director. At a school with 200 students, for example, the loss would be about $50,000 -- enough for a teacher's salary and benefits. The exact trims will be decided by each school's principal and school-management team of staff and parents.

Central office departments also will be hit by the cutbacks: Many will be asked to cut spending by 9 percent, Raymond said. Left unscathed will be mandatory programs and services for special education students, he said.

Amprey said the cuts would likely lead to losses in staff at the central office and in some schools. He also put a political spin on the budget crisis.

"While it's unfortunate, we are hoping schools and parents understand why we have to do this," Amprey said. "I hope that they are able to recognize that their anger should be directed to the state."

The decision comes just two weeks before Gov. Parris N. Glendening wants Schmoke to agree to settle his school-finance lawsuit.

Glendening says he will freeze $5.9 million in school funds by July 28 if Schmoke does not agree to terms proposed by the state.

The General Assembly withheld $12 million from its share of Baltimore school aid -- and tied release of the money to Schmoke's decision whether to settle. The lawmakers also froze $10 million that would pay for improvements at 40 low-achieving city schools, but that does not affect the deficit because that money was not in the original city budget.

Last week, as both the governor and the mayor lobbied Baltimore business leaders and elected officials, no settlement was in sight. Schmoke's suit seeks an increase in state school aid; the state has offered $140 million in new aid between 1998 and 2001, but wants an overhaul of school government in exchange.

Schmoke has spurned the offer, saying that the money is not enough to improve the education offered to public school students and that the management overhaul sought is unfair.

He has told the school system to plan to do without the money related to existing and possible state funding freezes, he said.

"We are proceeding now as though all of these matters are going to be resolved in trial," he said last week.

His lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in court in November.

Judy Scioli, a spokeswoman for Glendening, said there would not be a comment from the governor's office on the school budget cuts.

"I think all of this is part of what's going on around the lawsuit -- it is a certain kind of posturing," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, the Baltimore Democrat who heads the Budget and Taxation Committee. "That money is not gone. We are saying, 'Come and get it, all you have to do is sit down and negotiate something that will benefit the school system.' "

"I don't fault the mayor in this as much as I fault the state's strong-arm tactics," said Ed Freeman, a city parent who has lobbied against the state's withholding aid. He said the mayor should not have to settle the suit to get money already budgeted for city children's education.

"I'm sure Mayor Schmoke is doing this knowing full well the uproar it will create among parents and teachers and principals," Freeman added.

The budget changes must be approved by the city school board, which will meet tomorrow.

"This is very difficult, but sometimes you have to suffer and sacrifice for the greater good," said Arnita Hicks McArthur, interim school board president. "If we are victorious [with the lawsuit], we have so much to gain."

The $14 million portion of the shortfall caused by school system decisions includes a nearly $2 million proposed settlement with Education Alternatives Inc. for the computers it installed in the nine schools it no longer runs. The school system has decided to assume the computer contracts, Amprey said.

In addition, Raymond said, the budget must be adjusted to accommodate millions in new expenses for special education services, improvements for City College and a reorganization of the school system's curriculum department.

Last school year, after state lawmakers withheld $5.9 million from Baltimore to prompt management improvements, the city cut principals' budgets by $30 a pupil -- angering parents and teachers.

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