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Educationby Kimberly Coleman8:49 amFeb 20, 20170

Time for Pugh to keep pledge to boost city’s contribution to schools

OP-ED: A long-term school funding fix is important, but the mayor must act now

Above: Teachers and students at Liberty Elementary School in northwest Baltimore. (Fern Shen)

On a cold night last month, about 15 of us came together to share our fears about what would happen if the projected $129 million deficit in the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPS) budget is not resolved.

It was a group with intimate knowledge of – and a deep personal stake in – the outcome: Baltimoreans for Educational Equity (BEE) is composed of school teachers, former teachers, parents, students and other interested parties.

One teacher worried about losing the school psychologists that provide crucial emotional support for 1,500 students in her school.

Another worried about losing vital enrichment programs that have expanded her students’ horizons, such as art, Spanish, or even sports teams.

We all expressed anxiety that class sizes would increase.

In the following days, school district employees received an email from City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises confirming our worst fears:

She informed us that the budget shortfall would mean school-based layoffs numbering 1,000 or more.

Losing 10% of our workforce at once would mean a typical class size would increase by as many as 10 students. Many classes are already absurdly overcrowded, often to the point where children cannot expect so much as a desk.

A 2nd grade teacher in our group tells of having a class so packed that when four extra students showed up at the start of the school year, she had to move her desk out of the room to fit them all in.

It’s hard to imagine how our schools could function with an even lower level of staffing.

Mayor’s Campaign Promise

We cannot cannot let this happen, Baltimore.

Quality instruction would go out the window, and our passionate, dedicated teaching force would be reduced to glorified babysitters.

Last year, school-based employees already experienced a brutal round of cuts that hit school support staff and school police. We saw 171 positions eliminated. Fortunately, teachers and principals were spared.

The projected layoffs for the coming fiscal year are so significant that they will be reflected in unemployment rates and other macroeconomic measures of Baltimore City.

Fortunately, there is hope. In her campaign for mayor, then-State Senator Catherine Pugh came in front of 200 BEE members and pledged to increase the city’s contribution to schools from 20% to 35% over four years. It was an unprecedented commitment to Baltimore’s children.

This increase of roughly $200 million would bring us closer to matching the percentage of local revenue that other Maryland municipalities invest in their students: 71% of Howard County Public Schools’ funding coming from the county, 66% in Montgomery County, 53% in Baltimore County, and 36% in Prince George’s County.

Mayor Pugh has not yet said what portion of the $200 million increase she will include in her first year’s budget, starting July 1.

We were excited to have a candidate so committed to Baltimore’s students. Now Baltimore needs a mayor who is equally committed.

A $50 million down payment in FY 2018 would go a long way to close the budget gap, and make a strong statement to legislators in Annapolis that Baltimore is willing to put in its fair share to educate our students.

Making a Structural Fix

Asked to cover this year’s deficit with state aid, Gov. Larry Hogan said he’s open to discussing it, but has made no commitment. Meanwhile, all sides agree that, long term, the state needs to fix its broken funding formula.

Legalized gambling in Maryland was supposed to go into the Education Trust Fund to aid schools, but a loophole in the legislation permits the funding to drain back out for other uses through a budgeting back door.

What’s more, rising city property values, stoked in part by development subsidies, count against Baltimore’s schools under the current state funding formula.

A commission set up last year by Gov. Hogan and the legislature, known as the Kirwan Commission, is considering new funding formulas.

Meanwhile, city students cannot wait for the panel to finalize its recommendations. By making a significant investment of our own resources, Baltimore will be in a much stronger position to go to Annapolis and advocate for the state to close the rest of the gap.

Mayor Pugh will have to balance many different demands in crafting her budget, including police, roads, waterfront development, health and homelessness issues.

But in the end, the budget is a reflection of our values as a community. And our values tell us to put our children first. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglas warned, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

This Wednesday (February 22) at 6 pm there will be a meeting, open to all, at Open Works in Greenmount West at 1400 Greenmount Avenue to say that these cuts are unacceptable and that it is not only just, but an economic imperative to commit to educating Baltimore’s children and future work force.

If we come together, we can leave Mayor Pugh without any doubt that Baltimore refuses to leave our kids behind.
Kimberly Coleman is a city school teacher and member of the Regional Strategy Team at Baltimoreans for Educational Equity.

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