Alonso presses school shake-up

Plan would close, merge or expand about 3 dozen schools, cut 179 central office jobs. The key changes:

March 11, 2009|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso unveiled last night a huge reorganization plan to close failing schools and expand successful ones, at the same time as he proposed 179 central office job cuts to close a budget shortfall.

The plan, which would affect about three dozen schools and thousands of students, puts aside the reform strategy of downsizing schools that Baltimore and many other cities have embraced in recent years. Instead, it emphasizes student and parent choice: Low-performing schools that no one wants to attend would shut or merge with higher-performing, more popular ones.

"We do not want to have a school system where kids are settling for a third, fourth choice," Alonso said in an interview before his public presentation.

FOR THE RECORD - An article yesterday about city schools chief Andres Alonso's proposed budget erroneously stated that custodians will no longer report to principals. The system's "education building supervisors," who support and evaluate custodians and provide technical expertise about facilities, are the employees who will report to the central office rather than to principals.
The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.

He took his plan to the school board on the same night that he presented his $1.27 billion proposed budget for the 2009-2010 academic year that would reduce the central office staff to help save $55 million.

Highlights of the plan include:

* William H. Lemmel Middle, the school where a boy was fatally stabbed outside last fall, would close, giving a charter school in the building room to expand and creating space for a new alternative school to open.

* Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High, which for more than 40 years has educated pregnant girls and teen mothers but is severely underenrolled, would merge with another alternative school that needs more space.

* Digital Harbor High, which had 1,743 applications this year for 300 seats, and the National Academy Foundation High School, which had a 100 percent college acceptance rate last year, would both expand as NAF moves out of the Digital Harbor building. NAF would absorb the student body of struggling Paul Laurence Dunbar Middle to become a combined middle/high school.

Some of the city's most troubled school buildings would be reinvented entirely. The Walbrook complex, for example, would be empty next academic year, with one of its two high schools closing and the other moving. The complex would be reconfigured for two new middle/high schools to open there in 2010.

Staff at the schools recommended to close - including Harriet Tubman Elementary, Thurgood Marshall High, Samuel L. Banks High and Homeland Security Academy - would be offered jobs elsewhere in the system. The central office employees whose jobs are proposed for elimination would also be able to apply for other jobs. But some have skills that might not be easily transferred.

Alonso said his recommendation to close Lemmel is not directly related to the November stabbing, but the school has been losing enrollment and is engineered for failure because of its high population of over-age students. The stabbing, he said, would make it difficult to attract new families if the school were to try to reinvent itself.

The proposed 15 percent reduction at the central office - cutting the number of employees from 1,186 to 1,007 - marks the second year of downsizing at North Avenue, as the building is commonly known, under Alonso's administration. Last year, 310 positions were eliminated. The CEO wants the headquarters to be as lean as possible so more money can go directly to schools. He supports giving principals flexibility over spending, within a framework, and holding them accountable for results.

"The schools have to be at the center of the universe, and central has to revolve around the schools," Alonso said.

Faced with a general fund shortfall because of a 2007 state decision to limit inflation increases to school districts, Alonso proposes cutting $40 million from the central office and using $15 million from reserves and a potential surplus.

But because of a projected enrollment increase this year, amid increased costs and relatively flat state and local funding, the system will have to cut the base amount it gives to schools for each pupil - currently about $5,000 - by as much as $100.

With money for specialized purposes, most schools see an average of $9,000 per pupil, and during the next two years, the system will get a large influx in specialized funds as a result of the federal stimulus package. The amount of Title 1 money, federal dollars for high-poverty schools, is due to increase by nearly $38 million, to $93 million. Federal special education money would increase by about $12 million, to $35 million, by 2011.

Heading into the second year of decentralization, Alonso is adjusting the system's budget based on lessons learned to give principals more autonomy in some areas and less in others. For example, principals did not like being responsible for supervising custodians; that function would return to the central office. But principals would gain flexibility over some special education spending.

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