Board unveils schools budget

Thornton bill to enable reductions in class size, reading and math coaches

`Terrific moment in time'

Official says state boost in aid will help sustain system's reform efforts

April 19, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Less than two weeks after receiving what they called a much-needed boost in state aid, Baltimore school officials unveiled yesterday a spending plan that would use the funds to cut high school class size, hire reading and math coaches for the elementary grades and recruit and retain quality teachers.

The city school system's proposed $911.6 operating budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 marks a 2 percent increase over current spending levels.

Nearly all of the increase is composed of $18.7 million in state funding from the so-called Thornton legislation approved in the General Assembly, which calls for a $1.3 billion increase in statewide public education spending during the next six years.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of a dropped word, an article in yesterday's editions of The Sun gave an incorrect figure for the proposed Baltimore City school system operating budget. The correct figure is $911.6 million. The Sun regrets the error.

Under an overview of the plan, presented to the Baltimore school board's finance committee, the district would use the bulk of the Thornton money - $12.8 million - for teacher recruitment and retention efforts, "content coaches" at the elementary school level and a reduction in high school class size to 28 students.

Some of the money would be used to fund full-day kindergarten, expand summer school programs, lower middle school class size and support continuing initiatives, said city schools Chief Financial Officer Henry J. Raymond.

"If it weren't for the Thornton funding, this would have been a flat budget," Raymond said.

C. William Struever, the finance committee chairman, called this a "terrific moment in time" for the school system to lay out longer-range funding plans that will help sustain the system's reform efforts.

Elementary school pupils, the focus of those reforms, have made consistent gains in reading and math during the past several years.

"It's absolutely appropriate now to do a five-year budget [plan] because we do have some real assurance" on extra state funding, said Struever, who serves as vice chairman of the nine-member school board. "Obviously they've got to find the resources to pay for Thornton."

The legislation, whose passage had been in doubt throughout the 90-day legislative session, calls for a large increase in financing during the next six years, but includes money only for the first two.

City school officials have constantly battled with the state about the system's level of funding, saying it is not adequate. Last summer, they submitted a request to the state for an extra $363 million in fiscal year 2003, beyond what the city was due under the city-state reform partnership.

The proposed budget includes $47.9 million in extra funds for a range of academic programs and for pay raises for teachers and principals and professional development, among other things.

Provided lawmakers find a way to pay for it, the Thornton legislation will mean progressively more money for Baltimore schools each year. By fiscal year 2008, the total extra funding will reach $258.5 million, said Mark Smolarz, the system's chief operating officer.

"The [Thornton money] gives us the opportunity to make some more positive changes in the education of our students," he said.

Board member J. Tyson Tildon, who attended the finance committee meeting, said the school system needs to look past the coming fiscal year to future ones.

"Now we have Thornton, and that gives us a stability that I think we never had before in terms of projecting out," he said.

Board members will review the proposed budget in more detail in the coming weeks.

Struever said he wants to ensure the final version includes enough funding for academic interventions necessary to support students who are not meeting the school system's new promotion standards.

Other funding priorities mentioned yesterday by board members were libraries and media centers, computer wiring and arts programs.

The proposed budget will go to the full board next week. Public hearings will be held at 5:30 p.m. Thursday and May 1 at the school system's administrative headquarters at 200 E. North Ave.

The board is expected to vote on the final version May 9.

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