Mayor rejects request for aid Schmoke tells schools he won't increase funds allotted for 1998-1999

Painful choices ahead

Board wanted more money to offset cost of special education

March 20, 1998|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Even as Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke agreed to a one-time-only bailout for Baltimore schools this year, he said yesterday he won't increase the money allotted for next year despite worries that the system will have to make painful choices to balance its 1998-1999 budget.

The school board had asked the mayor for a $14 million increase to $209 million for the year beginning in July, hoping to offset the increasing costs of special education, which the board has no control over.

But the mayor said no. So the school board is left to tighten its budget for programs in regular classrooms.

"It isn't easy when you have to make reductions for children, but we just have to do it. That is our responsibility," said Edward Brody, a school board member.

The school board has not outlined where it might cut, although it is rumored that $1.8 million could be trimmed from City College and about another $400,000 from the School for the Arts. Those schools receive more money per student than other high schools in the system.

One factor driving the need to trim spending is rising special education costs, a result of a court order that the schools comply with federal law.

For instance, in 1996 Baltimore schools spent $142 million on special education students, and in 1999 the schools estimate they will spend $44 million more, or $186 million.

The school system spends 33 percent of its $573 million operating budget on special education students, who represent 17 percent of all students.

The mayor's decision was not particularly surprising to school board members because Schmoke had never promised more funding. But the city school checkbook has been out of balance for years, with checks being written for more money than there was to spend.

In past years, the city bailed out the system, but this year the new school board will have to live within its limits.

The schools get money from different sources -- federal, state and city governments -- but much of the money comes with instructions on how to spend it.

While the state will pump $50 million more next year into the city schools than it did two years ago, the money is targeted at certain things -- such as increasing teacher salaries, lowering class sizes or opening after-school academies. The new money cannot be spent on operational costs -- buying pencils and toilet paper.

It is the operating budget that is feeling the pinch these days, particularly as the federal and state courts have ordered the schools to spend money to provide new services to special education students.

Interim schools chief Robert E. Schiller said yesterday the administration had written two budgets for the 1998-1999 school year, one that predicted the mayor would not increase his allocation to the schools and one that included an increase.

The board, he said, was unhappy with the cuts that would be required with no increase and decided to ask for more.

Board members, some of whom run their own businesses, seem determined to make the school budget balanced, as it has not always been before.

"We are going to have to make next year's budget balance," Schiller said.

Board member C. William Struever said the board is also working on ways to pull in federal and charitable foundation grants that can help alleviate the budget crisis.

Yesterday, the board members appeared eager to repair frayed relations with the mayor.

Board President Tyson Tildon issued a statement thanking the mayor for his support in helping give $4 million to close the budget gap for this school year. The school board also cut $5 million from the operating budget this week.

"We have worked tirelessly to raise additional revenues for the system and to reduce system operating expenses," Tildon said. "We agree that it is not and should not be acceptable to make cuts to a budget that is already insufficient or to make cuts that might affect schoolchildren. The law requires us, however, to balance the school system budget by year's end and the board must be prepared to make cuts."

Pub Date: 3/20/98

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