City education chief proposes lean school budget

Fewer students mean state funding will be cut

March 15, 2000|By Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich | Liz Bowie and JoAnna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

Baltimore education chief Robert Booker has proposed a preliminary budget for next year that holds the line on spending and does not include money for more ambitious programs considered critical to overhauling the ailing public schools.

The proposed spending plan presented to the school board last night has little money to reform middle and high schools, give new teachers summer training or provide every kindergartener with a full day of instruction.

"I do want you to understand this is a bare-bones budget," Booker said. "We've done the best we can do with the revenues we have."

Booker is seeking $49.7 million in additional state aid this year, but the governor and key legislators have indicated school officials won't get their entire wish list.

The House is proposing giving the city $6 million and state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, has scaled her request back to $25 million.

Booker said last night he is exploring several cost-cutting options, including reducing a layer of middle managers in nine offices throughout the city. These area executive offices have been a fixture in city schools for at least a decade. The budget calls for a $1.7 million increase in spending for those jobs.

He also warned that the system might not be able to fund summer school for all students who need it.

Booker said the spending plan was a challenge to put together. Student enrollment is projected to decline next fall by 2,000 students, so the city will get less money from the state.

With its state aid declining, the system was squeezed to fund promised increases in teacher salaries, special education and technology costs.

To make up the difference Booker cut 43 positions, mostly central office vacancies ranging from secretaries to professionals.

Most of the $839 million school budget is funded by the state, but the school system is betting on a 3.7 percent spending boost from the city as it struggles to improve services despite a diminished tax base.

City budget director Ed Gallagher declined to comment yesterday on whether the city could afford to increase its spending on schools. However, he cautioned that "the revenue picture has not really improved."

Special education costs have continued to spiral. The system will spend $7.7 million more -- a total of $56.1 million -- to educate some of its most disabled students in private schools at a cost of $44,000 per student. School officials said that since the private schools have raised tuitions, they are considering whether it might be more cost effective to offer the special education programs in the school system instead.

There was optimism, however, that the city is beginning to see a reduction in the number of children being assigned to special education -- one of the highest rates in the nation. The number is projected to go down by about 800 to 1,000 next year.

The public will have three chances to comment on the proposed budget before the school board votes April 11.

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