Schools wary of restoring services

Officials seek assurances that city or state funding is available

Court order sought up to $45 million

August 31, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Despite a court order that sought to make available up to $45 million in extra funds for Baltimore schools this year, school officials say they won't be able to quickly restore the smaller class sizes and other academic services that were cut to save money.

In a letter to Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan, school officials wrote that they cannot bring back the services this school year without more funding from the city and state. If they tried, the system would "almost certainly" face cash-flow shortages like last year's, the letter said.

The system's word of caution came as community members continue to praise Kaplan's Aug. 20 order, which also declared the state continues to "substantially underfund" the city schools by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Kaplan's order, part of a longstanding court case over the funding and quality of city schools, said the system's plan to eliminate a $58 million deficit in two years would halt its academic progress by denying children important services and programs.

The judge ordered the state, city and school system to find funds to restore the services -- worth between $30 million and $45 million -- that had been cut to curb the system's spending.

Kaplan said he preferred to see the city and state increase funding to the system. But because the judge does not have the authority to order the General Assembly or City Council to appropriate funds, he provided an alternative to make sure the schools get at least $30 million this year.

He struck down a portion of state law and an agreement between the system and the city that required the city schools to pay off the deficit in two years. Then, he ordered that the deficit be paid off in four years, thus freeing up money to be spent elsewhere.

But in the letter sent Friday and interviews yesterday, school officials said the judge's less-ambitious financial recovery plan does not guarantee there will be funds to reinstate teachers, elementary guidance counselors, systemwide summer school and other things.

Record deficit

"We don't want to go back down that path that we went before where we spent money ... that wasn't really there," said school board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch, referring to missteps that led to the record deficit.

The system's budget for this year includes $35 million set aside to begin paying down the deficit, but Welch said that money -- to be amassed by reducing spending -- should not be relied on.

She said the board opposes spending the money, as Kaplan suggests, to restore services. "We're not a thousand percent [certain], so we're going to be conservative," Welch said.

Chief Financial Officer Rose Piedmont said the system will not increase its spending this school year until the state or city agree to provide more funds.

"If we get ... additional cash coming in our door from the state or the city, we can certainly begin to comply with the judge's order," she said.

More money from the state appears unlikely. State officials contend that the system's financial woes are a result of mismanagement and not a lack of funding, and have said they intend to appeal Kaplan's order.

It is still unclear whether the city is willing to provide additional financial support, either through another loan to help ease a cash-flow crunch or some other form of aid.

Paying down deficit

Stephen Kearney, a spokesman for the mayor, said the city "remains focused on getting the deficit paid down." The city has not decided whether it will appeal Kaplan's decision, he said, but it has several weeks to continue discussions with the city school system before any decisions are made.

Education advocates said the system is right to demand help from the city and state.

"The judge's opinion makes plain that the parties -- the city, the state, the school board -- are required to come up with $30 [million] to $45 million in funds for remedial programs that benefit at-risk students for this academic year," said Bebe Verdery, education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, one of the groups involved in the lawsuit.

In addition to a lack of money, Piedmont said, it also would be logistically difficult to change course and restore programs and jobs with the new school year a week away.

New talks needed

School officials said they hope to sit down soon with the state and city to hammer out an agreement about how to approach the year.

"Right now it's virtually impossible to get the two sides talking," Welch said of the city and state, both of which have been seeking influence over the school system. "They both know approximately how much it will take to bring us up to a comfortable level of operation without overspending, but we have not been able to talk with each other around the table."

Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.

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