Writing in black ink

April 09, 2006

Even though the Baltimore school system has been under siege lately, school officials have been putting the finishing touches on next year's budget, which reflects important priorities for the system and its students. For the second year in a row, the budget totals more than $1 billion and - in a major milestone - there is no deficit for the first time in seven years.

Though rightly proud of those markers, school officials know that the real and ongoing challenge is to raise the level of achievement, particularly in persistently low-performing schools. That should be the key focus as the Board of School Commissioners votes on the budget this week.

After a few years of constraints and cuts to make up for a $58 million shortfall, the system is anticipating a 7 percent increase for the 2006-2007 school year, allowing it to pump more of its nearly $1.1 billion into classrooms. Acknowledging the system's biggest hurdle, schools CEO Bonnie S. Copeland has targeted $22.2 million to help the 50 lowest-performing elementary and middle schools do better.

Students should benefit from additional teachers to reduce class sizes and to help special-education students in elementary grades. Also to help boost achievement, more math coaches will be assigned to elementary schools, more reading coaches will be hired for K-12 classes, more student support administrators will work in secondary schools, and summer school classes will be increased. Ms. Copeland would establish an early childhood office and add 10 new prekindergarten classrooms, including more classes for young students who have limited proficiency in English. She would also spend $8.4 million for textbook and curriculum upgrades. And, expanding on some small efforts the system was able to make this year, nearly $7 million will be spent to hire more art, music and physical education teachers. But the largest budget commitment, $42 million, is for salary increases for teachers and other staff, with another $18 million for increases in health benefits.

Reflecting the concerns of community residents who were invited to participate in the budget preparation process, $1 million will be used to hire more cleaning staff, a welcome addition to the nearly $8 million budgeted for preventive maintenance and repairs.

Budgets typically outline hopes and wishes as well as stark realities. This one is not perfect, and city school officials have a long way to go to help more students increase achievement. But this is a step in the right direction - making the state's clumsy partial takeover effort seem all the more misguided.

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