City schools plan for job cuts, larger class sizes

System announces ways it intends to attack deficit

$964 million budget proposed

April 21, 2004|By Liz Bowie and Tanika White | Liz Bowie and Tanika White,SUN STAFF

To keep spending under tight control and pay back a portion of the system's $58 million accumulated deficit, Baltimore school officials said yesterday that they plan to cut 250 teaching jobs and raise class sizes next year.

"Our financial difficulties are not over," said Chief Executive Officer Bonnie Copeland, but added that the system is gaining momentum in its efforts to reduce spending.

School officials presented a first look at a proposed $964 million budget for fiscal year 2005 last night at a public hearing. It would require the system to add two students to each classroom, raising class sizes to 22 children in first grade and gradually increasing to 32 students in high school.

The class-size increase would have been greater without the increase in state aid under the Thornton funding plan, Copeland said.

The reduction in the number of teachers would be expected to come through attrition because it is not unusual for as many as 250 teachers to leave a system with 8,000 teachers and teacher aides. But if not enough teachers retire or leave this summer, layoffs would be necessary.

The budget -- for the year beginning July 1 -- was expected to be an important step for a system that was near insolvency last month before it was bailed out by Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council. The city lent the system $42 million, and the nonprofit Abell Foundation agreed to add an $8 million loan to ease the cash-flow problem.

Under the spending plan, which must be approved by the school board and City Council, the system would reduce the deficit by $35 million next year and create a $10 million fund for contingencies that could arise. The budget is due to go to the City Council by May 1.

Copeland said the system will have to pay back $34 million of the loans. She acknowledged that the cash-flow issue would remain a challenge to the system in the coming year.

The budget was presented as a nine-page document, with one page that detailed spending.

At the public hearing, American Civil Liberties Union education director Bebe Verdery noted the lack of detail. While the public can see the bottom line, Verdery said, she wants to know "what are the cuts the system is having to make to get to that point."

For instance, she noted that the system had been planning to put 28 additional music, art or physical education teachers in schools, but there is no way of knowing what happened to those positions.

Board member Sam Stringfield also made it clear that the document presented last night was not enough. "We are going to have to see a lot more detail," he said.

In previous years, the budget has been inches thick and presented more information about how money would be spent.

Stringfield also suggested that while it was important to keep the number of administrative staff at a minimum, as Copeland pledged to do, the system needed a fully staffed finance office. Too few staff overseeing finances was one of the factors that led to the financial crisis this year.

The system projects that enrollment will continue to decline -- by about 2,500 students -- to 89,275 next fall.

Two school board members expressed concerns that the system make better projections this year. "The enrollment is so critical to our success relative to staying in line fiscally," said board member Brian Morris.

Overestimating student enrollment last year meant that the system hired too many teachers.

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