Grievances are voiced at school budget forum

City parents, advocates raise issues ahead of Tuesday's vote

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April 24, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Days before the Baltimore school board is scheduled to vote on a proposed $1 billion budget for next school year, the system's top officials yesterday fielded questions and took complaints from the public at a budget forum.

Dozens of parents and advocates raised concerns ranging from a lack of guidance counselors and librarians in elementary schools to a summer school program that will serve only a third of city students.

Administrators agreed to attend the forum organized by the Parent and Community Advisory Board after the group complained that the public did not have enough input in designing the budget.

The school board is expected to vote on the budget Tuesday and forward it to the mayor and City Council for their approval.

The proposal for fiscal 2006 represents a 5 percent increase over the current budget - made possible by an increase in state aid - and includes a relaxation of spending cuts made amid a financial crisis that resulted in a $58 million deficit more than a year ago.

Yesterday, several people complained that not enough money was set aside to address class sizes, which increased last year.

"I'm just here to get somebody to know ... that we need help," said Fannie Armstrong, a Hazelwood Elementary/Middle School parent who said she has seen a class of 40 pupils.

Bill Bleich, a veteran city teacher, criticized the $6 million that would be spent on class-size reduction in kindergarten and grades four and five as too little.

"I think it's pitiful," the Polytechnic Institute English teacher said. "It's wrong that the summer school budget is bigger than the budget to reduce class sizes."

Summer school would cost the system nearly $9 million and serve children in certain grades and some in schools that receive federal poverty grants.

Erin Coleman, a strategist for the Safe and Sound Campaign, praised the summer school plan. Others said it was inadequate because it does not make programs available to all children.

Before the public's comments, schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland described changes she made to her proposal after hearing from community members at an earlier budget hearing - though the system would not be able to accommodate all requests.

In response to criticism that the system does not reach out to parents enough, Copeland increased funding to support parent and community involvement.

Some of the new money will pay to add three community liaisons and for the activities of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, the group of community volunteers that advises the school board.

Copeland also added $400,000 toward a summer camp for second-graders to be operated by the nonprofit SuperKids.

Leslie Parker Blyther, a parent and education activist, asked the school board to deny a request to add internal auditors and a parent-involvement coordinator to Copeland's staff, at a cost of $291,000.

She also chided the schools chief for trying to eliminate the budget deficit - as Copeland told the audience she is bound to do by state law - instead of spending more in the classroom.

"You have a greater moral responsibility" than to follow state law, Blyther said.

In addition to changes to its spending proposal, the administration has taken pains to make the community feel more involved. Officials created a 32-page guide to the budget that is more user-friendly than the inch-thick budget book created by financial analysts. And Copeland and her senior staff patiently answered questions at yesterday's 3 1/2 -hour forum. All but three school board members were present for some portion of the meeting.

Michael P. Carter, the advisory board's president, said he was pleased with the system's efforts but hopes the community is able to have input earlier in next year's budget planning process.

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