More funds urged for city schools

Advocates criticize Dixon's budget at taxpayer hearing

April 05, 2007|By John Fritze and Nicole Fuller | John Fritze and Nicole Fuller,sun reporters

Parents and education advocates criticized Mayor Sheila Dixon's administration yesterday for not spending more on public schools at an annual public hearing on Baltimore's budget.

About two dozen residents turned out at the War Memorial Building for the city's annual taxpayer's night - a hearing that drew about 100 residents last year - to testify on the fiscal 2007-2008 proposed budget. The budget, Dixon's first as mayor, calls for $2.65 billion in spending and a 2-cent reduction in the property tax rate.

Many who spoke seized on the city's proposed $208.1 million contribution to schools, an increase of less than one-tenth of 1 percent over last year. Public schools have received small increases for the past several years, including under Dixon's predecessors.

"I would love to see [my children] in the positions that you guys are sitting in right now," Sharneasha Street, a Waverly resident, told members of the Board of Estimates, which oversaw last night's public hearing. "But with the education that they are halfway getting in Baltimore City, it's not working."

Speakers made a direct plea for the city to increase school funding by $13 million.

Dixon defended the proposed budget, saying that per-pupil spending would increase. However, that increase is in part a product of a reduction in enrollment in city schools.

"I think we have been a great partner with our schools," she said. "We've shown that over the last five years, we've helped them get out of the deficit by tapping into our rainy-day fund. Discussions are just beginning. We haven't found out what we're getting from the state yet."

Increased funding for the city's schools, the speakers said, is necessary to enhance basic needs, such as textbooks, and heating and cooling systems.

Eric White, the parent-involvement chairman for the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said parents have told him that they want police officers assigned to schools.

Rama McGhee, 17, a senior and Tavon Pryor, 18, a sophomore, students at Heritage High School at Lake Clifton, said classrooms are often overcrowded and students sometimes share books.

"I am capable," Pryor said. "I am interested. I ask you to invest in me."

City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young questioned whether throwing more money at the school system would necessarily solve its problems, a persistent question in the education field that has grown more pervasive as lawsuits around the country have forced governments to shell out more for schools.

"I don't think more money is the answer. I think what we need to do is to maximize our resources," said Young, adding that the city has used surpluses in recent years to increase spending on after-school and other youth programs that target children when they leave the classroom.

No residents questioned the property tax rate, which is ultimately set by the budget. Though the budget calls for a 2-cent reduction in the rate, most property owners would pay more because assessments are increasing.

The Board of Estimates is expected to approve the budget this month and send it to the City Council, which will hold its public hearing in May.

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