Schools complain of money shortage

New system forces tough choices

May 19, 2008|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

As Baltimore principals use newfound autonomy to craft budgets for their schools, some say they don't have enough money to cover all their expenses.

A new, decentralized funding structure for city schools seeks to rectify years of inequities while giving principals the authority to make decisions previously handled by the central office. That's good news for neighborhood high schools, which have been severely underfunded in the past and in some cases stand to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars. But small schools, many of them elementaries, will have to make do with less now that they're being funded based on the number of students they enroll.

The president of the city schools' administrators union called the new structure "deplorable." Jimmy Gittings, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, said at a school board meeting last week that his union has surveyed 54 principals, and 64 percent of them reported that they'll have to cut staff.

City schools chief Andres Alonso questioned the validity of the survey. He said only 21 of 192 schools are receiving less money than they got this year, and those schools received a disproportionately high level of funding in the past. Their cuts will average $39,000 each and will not exceed 15 percent of a school's total budget.

System officials say the bigger issue may be that principals don't want to cut superfluous positions occupied by colleagues and friends. Tisha Edwards, special assistant to the CEO, gave the example of a school with 300 students and four assistant principals; the recommended staff ratio is one assistant principal per 300 students.

"What I'm finding is that principals oftentimes shy away from what are obvious cuts they should make because of connections to people," Edwards said. "They'll say, `I can't fund the staff that I had last year.' In some cases, that's true. In some cases, the staff we gave to schools was not appropriate, but it was the district's money so nobody cared."

The system's overall $1.2 billion budget, approved by the school board last month, closes a $50 million shortfall and absorbs $25 million in new expenses.

Though the budget redistributes $70 million from the central office to the schools, principals are absorbing many responsibilities and funding decisions that the central office used to handle, from overseeing janitorial services to determining class size. Alonso has said repeatedly at principals meetings that "this isn't Christmas." Principals can add an in-school suspension program, an after-school activity or an art class, but they can't do everything.

Principals must submit their school budgets to Alonso by Thursday. At that time, Alonso said, the system will determine how many schools have cut staff positions and how many have added them. He said he doesn't expect all the details to be right on the first try, but he's comfortable with messiness as long as the system is moving in the right direction - putting resources and decision-making power in the schools.

In an interview, Gittings said principals won't have the money to make substantial reforms. "I want the public to understand that when they don't see drastic changes in the schools, it's not because of the administration and the staff," he said. "People think they're receiving these large increases. It's ludicrous."

A group of school librarians has been particularly vocal in opposing the new structure, forming a committee within the Baltimore Teachers Union to fight for their jobs. Maureen O'Neill, a librarian at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, said she knows of at least a dozen principals who plan to cut their librarian positions.

State regulations require schools to provide library services, but this year, only 100 of 192 city schools had librarians on staff. Edwards said principals should not be cutting the librarian's job if they have a functioning library, which many high schools don't, but schools located near each other may cut costs by sharing a librarian.

That solution is unacceptable to O'Neill, who said part-time librarians won't have time to work on collection development, literacy initiatives and other responsibilities beyond instruction. "The schools that had full-time librarians shouldn't have to be cutting back," she said. She was also confused by a system memo recommending that principals who do not have a librarian this year budget for library resources next year.

"Unfunded mandates don't sit well with people, especially when you're using all this PR about autonomy and increased funding," O'Neill said.

Edwards said some schools may choose to work with the city's public libraries to provide library services. She noted a school that's contracting with the nonprofit Sports4Kids to provide physical education for $24,000, eliminating the need for a more expensive gym teacher. Alonso has said the CollegeBound Foundation provides excellent college counseling for less than the cost of a full-time guidance counselor.

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