Schools plan would boost class sizes

Board approves proposal for 60% deficit reduction in the next school year

250 teaching jobs would be cut

Members express concern about accountability, linking money to goals

April 28, 2004|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore school board approved last night the broad outlines of a spending plan for next school year that would increase class sizes, eliminate 250 teaching positions and reduce a troublesome $58 million deficit by 60 percent.

After hours of poring over the details of the proposed operating budget for the fiscal year that will begin July 1, board members unanimously passed the plan despite saying they need more specifics and an explanation of how the system's top officials intend to educate 90,000 schoolchildren and responsibly spend money after the current year's fiscal disaster.

School board member Diane Bell McKoy said she was concerned that, in many cases, the money doesn't seem to be connected to specific goals.

"It is insufficient in my mind to vote on a set of dollars and not hold the people accountable not just for the dollars, but for the outcomes attached to those dollars," McKoy said. "I am alarmed by the absence of that level of detail."

School administrators presented a first look at the proposed $964 million budget at a public hearing last week. The public and the board saw only a nine-page document with one page detailing spending.

Last night was the first time members of the public had seen the full plan, which contains several hundred pages.

Under the proposal, the system would reduce its $58 million deficit by $35 million next year and create a $10 million fund for spending emergencies.

The plan now goes to the City Council and the mayor. The school board will adopt a final budget after the council and mayor review the proposal.

With next year's funding, the system also will have to pay back $34 million of a $42 million loan from the city, part of a deal orchestrated by Mayor Martin O'Malley to help bail out the nearly insolvent system.

To accomplish such ambitious goals, officials of the cash-strapped system propose significant spending cuts.

In a move that would affect virtually every city public school student, two students would be added to each classroom, raising the average class size to 22 in first grade and, gradually, to 32 in high school.

School system Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said she hopes the larger classes would be for one year only.

School officials said they also plan to cut 250 teaching jobs next year, in part because enrollment is expected to keep falling.

Officials project a decline of about 2,500 students, to 89,275, next year.

Some of the teaching cuts will be achieved by attrition as teachers resign or retire over the summer. If not enough teachers leave, layoffs will be necessary, officials said.

Even with a smaller staff, the system would face a 12 percent increase in health care costs and a 15 percent jump in prescription drug costs, Chief Financial Officer Rose Piedmont said.

School officials have proposed other ways to save money, including staggering school opening times to maximize the number of routes each bus can run every day.

Chief Operating Officer Carlton Epps said the system can eliminate 20 to 30 routes by altering the school opening and closing times, saving the system close to $2 million.

"We are also looking at our phone bills to see if we can decrease the prices there," Piedmont said, adding that officials are trying to determine the number of phone lines in the school system aren't being used.

Another cost-saving move revealed this week would significantly cut back the system's summer school program, which is aimed at helping struggling students catch up.

Board members grilled school officials about the efficacy of some programs and initiatives, and stressed the need for a heightened sense of accountability throughout the system.

Inquiries from board member Ken Jones uncovered an extra $450,000, possibly the result of duplicate accounting of the same proposed expenditures.

Also last night, system officials detailed how they intend to spend close to $50 million in new state funding under the Thornton plan.

"We are very mindful of the admonition to us from legislators to not use the Thornton money to reduce the deficit," Copeland said.

Continued funding of specialized high school programs - such as ROTC, Innovation Schools and International Baccalaureate - will cost the system about $10 million in new state money.

Nearly $6 million of the Thornton money will be spent on aides for kindergarten and pre-kindergarten classes. About $5.2 million will be used to add staff members and buy materials for a cluster of low-performing schools called the CEO's District. More than $3 million would pay for new textbooks.

Without the Thornton money, officials said, class sizes would have had to be increased by more than two students.

Budget highlights

Total: $964 million.

$35 million set aside to pay down the system's $58 million deficit.

Class size raised by two students in each classroom to a maximum of 22 students in first grade, gradually increasing to 32 in high school.

250 teaching jobs eliminated through attrition or layoffs.

Student enrollment expected to decline by about 2,500 students to 89,275.

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