Vote on controversial city school budget Tuesday

Board says that foundation of how schools are funded will be assessed for future years

  • Darius Johnson (left), a student at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute who has conducted HIV research in the Ingenuity Program, a program for gifted students and was accepted to a number of Ivy League colleges. Also pictured, friend and classmate: Victoria Jennings (right).
Darius Johnson (left), a student at Baltimore Polytechnic… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
May 27, 2014|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore's school board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on a $1.3 billion budget that has drawn backlash from schools and lawmakers for its program cuts, and has led the board to consider overhauling a local funding formula that left some high schools with as much as $450,000 in cuts.

The proposed budget — which shows dwindling financial support for two high-profile programs for gifted students, Ingenuity Project and International Baccalaureate — has spurred petitions, political outcry and a citywide debate about the investment in advanced students.

School officials proposed cutting the IB programs at City College and the Mount Washington School by more than $30,000 next year. And support for the Ingenuity Project, a science, technology, engineering and math program that serves high-performing schools like Roland Park Elementary/Middle and Polytechnic Institute, hit a five-year low this year, with next year's funding proposed to come from the district's rainy-day fund.

Additionally, the school board will vote to approve individual school budgets for the 2014-2015 school year, with the deepest cuts planned at large high schools such as Edmondson-Westside, Poly, City College and Dunbar.

Budget decisions the school board is facing have led members to question the future of the district's "Fair Student Funding" formula, a trademark of former schools CEO Andrés Alonso's reform.

The formula was implemented by Alonso, who led the district for six years before stepping down last year, to give principals more control of their schools.

The formula gives schools a base per-pupil expenditure, and extra funding for students with certain characteristics, such as advanced or special education. School budgets are based on enrollment.

Shanaysha Sauls, president of the school board, said the board believes "the time is ripe to evaluate and make improvements in how we budget, so that we can make better investments on behalf of students and schools."

She said the idea of Fair Student Funding is "groundbreaking and inventive in many ways, but it is not a perfect one."

Interim CEO Tisha Edwards, who will be leaving her position next month when Gregory Thornton takes over as superintendent, said she remains a strong proponent of Fair Student Funding. But a review of the model would be welcomed, she said, as the school system faces new challenges that include a $20 million annual investment in school facilities, more charter schools, and different school board priorities.

"The state of the district is very different than it was six years ago," she said. "We need to make sure that the funding model complements the new priorities.

Board members have raised concerns about schools' ability to use the per-pupil funding to adequately support both core academics and enrichment programs.

Among the questions that arose during budget debates is why schools weren't able to pay for programs like Ingenuity and IB with the money they received for advanced students.

A City Council resolution was introduced urging funding for the gifted programs.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who co-sponsored the resolution, said Friday that funding for the programs was clearly "inadequate" because the school system isn't able to offer the programs to all eligible students. She wants funding levels restored and maintained this year.

"We need to lift up all the students who can make the most of advanced studies, and ensure that every student eligible is included," she said.

State Dels. Sandy Rosenberg, Jill Carter and Nathaniel Oaks also spoke on behalf of schools losing IB funding. The Mount Washington School community presented a petition to have its money restored. City College and Poly students and alumni also started a petition, which had nearly 600 signatures Friday, and plan to a rally before the school board meeting Tuesday.

Among the biggest drawbacks in the "Fair Student Funding" model is that it can force schools to experience wild yearly fluctuations based on enrollment projections.

"Budget constraints and uncertainty as well as funding inconsistencies from year to year for schools across the district — especially for our high schools and small schools — have created a situation that is clearly unsustainable," Sauls said.

For example, Edmondson-Westside is slated to lose 101 students, which would cost the school $456,442 next year. Poly would lose $408,136 based on a projected 94-student decline. And City, expected to lose 62 students, would get $279,771 less.

At Edmondson, this will mean that additional support and strategies the school has used to improve its culture and academics may have to be reduced, said Principal Karl Perry.

Perry said the cut — the largest in the district — would not affect academic offerings in core subjects.

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