BCPSS budget briefing
Andres Alonso has scaled back on his public appearances in the past few weeks, holed up at North Avenue consumed by preparation of next school year's budget. The budget will be particularly noteworthy this year 1) because it will contain $50 million of cuts, all or mostly coming from the central office and other administrative expenses and 2) because it will redistribute money in a major way, throwing out the old formula where most spending has been dictated centrally and giving a huge chunk to principals to spend at their discretion.
Alonso's proposed budget is scheduled to be presented to the school board -- and, thus, to be made public -- on March 11. But we were able to get a preview of what's in store today in a presentation that Dr. Alonso gave to the City Council's Budget and Appropriations and Education committees.
The 34-page presentation, available here, says Baltimore's current school funding formula can be "unfair," "complex" and "inflexible." For example, some schools get more money than others:
-- With figures controlled for the extra money dedicated things like special education, the amount spent per pupil ranges from $7,000 to $20,000 in elementary schools, from $7,000 to $13,000 in elementary/middle schools, from $9,000 to $28,000 in middle schools, and from $8,000 to $17,000 in high schools.
-- The system spends more on its middle schools (most of which are troubled and many of which are closing) than on other types of schools.
-- Small elementary and middle schools receive more money than large elementary and middle schools.
-- Combined elementary/middle schools have the lowest funding, a statistic that may validate a long-running complaint that sixth- through eighth-graders in those schools don't have adequate libraries, science labs and other resources needed to educate older children.
Alonso is recommending that funding follow each student to the school he/she attends. All students would get a base level of funding, plus more if they have special needs (some students cost more to educate than others, he says). Principals would get that money to spend as they see fit, and then be held accountable for the results.
Just how much money will be allocated per pupil remains to be seen. Under the current budget, only 14 percent of dollars are discretionary for spending at the school level. Under a possible redistribution detailed in the presentation (marked "For Illustrative Purposes Only -- Not Final or Approved"), the proportion would increase to 50 percent. Currently, principals have only about $90 per pupil of money to spend as they see fit; all the rest comes with strings attached. Discretionary funding could climb into thousands of dollars per pupil under the new formula.
Alonso is openly struggling over what money to make discretionary and what needs to remain central. As he said at a principals meeting last week, principals seem interested in handling custodial services themselves. But what about food? Transportation? In some cases, the extra control could be more of a headache than a help. Special education in the city is under federal court order and must be governed centrally. Some federal money that's designated for specific purposes can't flow directly to the schools.
Around the city, one of the biggest concerns I'm hearing is whether schools with veteran teachers will be penalized under the new formula, if all schools get the same amount per student regardless of where staff members fall on the salary scale. Most of a school's budget goes to salaries and, naturally, experienced teachers make more than inexperienced ones. But Alonso said at the principals meeting that the difference between average and actual salaries in the system is far smaller than many people fear.
About that $50 million shortfall: The presentation says the school system is estimating a revenue increase of $11 million next fiscal year. It projects $61 million in added expenses: $42 million for negotiated salary increases, $5 million for utility cost increases and $14 million in miscellaneous other expenses.
A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for March 19. The school board is scheduled to vote on the document April 8. The system has set up an email address for public comment: firstname.lastname@example.org. And (need I mention?) we always welcome your feedback here.