School spending stirs debate

City plan maps out millions in increases for private contracts

March 22, 2000|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Break down the proposed school budget for Baltimore into who gets the biggest increases, and private contractors, not schoolchildren, are the ones taking away the big bucks.

About $16 million will go to contractors who manage computer systems that track student records, pay the bills and issue paychecks. Private schools, which provide services to about 1,250 disabled students for the city schools, will get $56.1 million, an increase of $7.7 million over this year.

Bus contractors will get their share of the pie too -- an estimated $1.2 million more than this year.

Schoolchildren? The instructional budget will decline $6 million next year. Teacher training? A third less money, because of the loss of a state grant, to help those in the classroom learning to teach with a new curriculum and new textbooks.

Gifted children? They lose $119,000.

School board members are quick to say that the proposed budget for the 2000-2001 school year is a work in progress that will change before a final vote is taken April 11.

"We are making significant changes in the budget in the next several weeks," said board member C. William Struever. School officials hope, he said, to be able to pump more money into improving classroom teaching by making cuts in the bureaucracy, getting more state aid and attracting more grants and private dollars.

The system, he said, is looking at a number of ways to make its bureaucracy more efficient.

The chief academic officer, Betty Morgan, is proposing to shrink the nine area executive offices, cutting as many as 30 positions, and consolidating them in the central offices at North Avenue. The area executives are a layer of middle management that helps keep track of what goes on at 184 schools.

Staff are apparently also floating the idea of further reorganization at the central office.

`Out of kilter'

School board President J. Tyson Tildon acknowledged that the increases in different areas in the budget do "seem somewhat out of kilter."

Part of the dilemma school officials faced in making up their new budget was that the school system's enrollment has been dropping quickly. The system lost approximately 2,500 children this school year and is expected to lose 1,500 more next school year. As enrollment declines, the amount of money the state gives Baltimore declines. Federal funds also declined slightly.

In response, the system plans to cut 238 teacher positions next year. Similar reductions in administrative costs and expenses paid to contractors didn't drop as sharply.

The school system, which is upgrading its computer management systems, has to spend more money to continue the project and protect its investment, said Roger Reese, the chief financial officer. The management systems will spend $19 million next year on technology outside the classroom.

The budget for the schools' chief executive officer is expected to increase next year by $157,246. Reese attributed the increase to the higher cost of producing reports, dues, subscriptions, travel and legal fees.

Reese said the school system was forced to make many administrative cuts to fund a 3 percent negotiated pay increase for teachers that will cost $13 million. "The same level of services will be reflected in this budget," he said, saying students will not be affected.

More money sought

The debate over the budget comes at a time when the school system is fighting for $49 million to pay for teacher training, summer school for failing second- and fourth-graders and improvements for middle and high schoolers.

The school board will hold two more budget hearings, the first at 5: 30 p.m. March 29 at the school system headquarters, 200 E. North Ave. The second will be held at 1 p.m. April 1 at the same location.

A copy of the budget is posted on the schools' Web site,

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