School priorities

April 26, 2005

BALTIMORE city school officials have gotten an often angry earful from parents and education advocates about the proposed $1 billion budget scheduled to be voted on tonight. Before casting their votes, school board members should take seriously the public's concerns that class sizes, particularly in middle and high schools, are way too large and not being reduced quickly enough - particularly when balanced against the system's rush to pay down its deficit. Perhaps it's not too late for board members to reorder some priorities.

There's no question that the 2004 discovery of a $58 million shortfall precipitated a major system meltdown. School officials accepted a $42 million loan from the city and promised to pay it back in only two years, forcing draconian cuts. Among other cost-saving measures, more than 1,000 employees were lopped off the payroll, class sizes were increased and the summer school program was reduced significantly. The system is about to meet its self-imposed deadline to repay the city. But it still has a $23 million structural deficit that school officials plan to eliminate by June 2006.

At the same time, Baltimore schools are getting $55 million in Thornton aid in July 2005. While Thornton funds are not to be used to pay down the deficit, the coincidental influx of new money gives the system some financial leeway. Schools CEO Bonnie Copeland and her staff had already decided to take advantage of the system's improving financial situation to reduce the average size of kindergarten, fourth- and fifth-grade classes by two students each. Officials had also earmarked $8 million to hire resource teachers - including restoring some art and music instruction - and $6 million for more school aides. The combination would give classroom teachers needed time for professional development.

But in community forums, parents have complained vociferously that many middle and high school classes, which are supposed to have a maximum of 32 pupils, are bursting at the seams with more than 35 students. That's unacceptable in a city with an almost 12 percent official high school dropout rate. In addition, while the system plans to spend about $8.5 million on the summer school program, it's still unable to make supply meet demand or to cover all at-risk students.

Clearly, the system could have made some different choices. Having agreed to give back the city loan quickly, school officials should think about stretching out the current deficit elimination plan. Ms. Copeland insisted at a forum last weekend that the system is legally bound to eliminate the deficit. But the law would seem to allow a one percent deficit, suggesting that the system could take an additional year or two to pay it off. One parent activist noted at the most recent forum that school officials have a "greater moral responsibility" to spend money in classrooms. Board members should think about how they can best follow the law and add classroom resources as they consider the budget tonight.

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