Why Baltimore's budget will be released in the final hour
Many of our readers have inquired about why the city schools budget is so late this year, and having only covered the tail-end of the budget season last April, I was wondering the same thing.
Every district we cover has presented their entire budgets, and have been vetting them publically for months. Some numbers changed along the way as a result of shifting funds and priorities, but people were debating real numbers and scenarios nontheless.
The school system has held a few evening public forums on the budget in the last few months that were not well-attended by the public. In some daytime school board worksessions I attended with primarily city staff and some advocacy groups, Powerpoint presentations were available, but presented as tentative plans.
Another public worksession is scheduled for Saturday from 10-11:30 a.m. You can find the most up-to-date Powerpoint presentation here.
According to the school system's timeline, the budget was due to be presented to the school board on Tuesday. From my experience covering budgets, I was preparing to up my coffee intake, and comb through hundreds of pages looking for year-to-year comparisons on critical line items. I thought I'd maybe even swing a meeting with the school officials to discuss the meaning behind the numbers.
However, I learned that the same Powerpoint will be presented next week, and school board members will be voting on student weights--definitely critical because it determines how much per-pupil funding schools will receive. However, schools have been working with their projected funding for the last month, with enough knowledge to know what they will and will not be able to afford.
The actual budget booklet will be made public in its entirety on Friday, May 20. The board is scheduled to adopt the full budget on May 24 (though it was originally scheduled for March 31). It also has to be approved by the Baltimore City Council. The fiscal year starts July 1.
Maybe it's because I'm new to the game, but I was quite surprised by this process. Budgets are often perceived as boring and dry, but are a wealth of information. I've found that going through a well-constructed, transparent budget booklet not only tells you what's funded in the upcoming year, but more importantly what is not.
I asked the district why the entire budget is being released so late this year (about a month later than last year, but still just days before it's passed), and posted the answers I received below.
Basically, they say that Baltimore is unique because a large part of its budget relies on other funding sources. (Not to mention that the ink isn't dry on some union contracts, and cost-saving measures are still in the works.)
Continue on to read the response from the district.
From Baltimore city school officials:
The reason for the delay in our budget this year is simple:
a. First, we receive a far greater percentage of our revenues from the state than any other district in the state (our percentage of our revenues coming from the state is roughly 75 percent). So the uncertainty about the revenues coming from the state this year, with scenarios that kept changing until the last minute, meant that we had to hold on the formal budget presented to the board until we knew our revenues. Other districts can rely on local revenues to make up state shortfalls, since the local revenues are the largest percentage of the budget. We cannot, with a sizable shortfall that was very dependent on decisions at the state level that were not clarified until April. Last year, the state revenue situation was settled early in the legislative process, so we could move the budget approval process earlier. If you look at earlier years, the budget was approved in late May or even in June, which is the case this year.
b. Second, unlike other districts, our dollars follow the student and are concentrated at the school level, where schools actually shape the budgets that aggregate to the district budget. So it is incredibly important to get the dollars to the schools right. The real debate for us in terms of our budget is what happens around the school dollars (the weights, and questions about locked positions, about assumptions about small schools, etc.). All those policy and practical points have been publicly debated several times, and we have concentrated on that discussion because it is what impacts our schools.
c. Third, unlike other districts, we have been aggressively rethinking the role of central in order to safeguard schools as much as possible. In the absence of clarity about state dollars, what was possible in terms of the central reorganization also had to wait.
d. Finally, reflecting these considerations, early in the process we proposed for the board a two step process for approval that was different from other years, with weights and school budgets approved first, and the central component approved second. The board agreed to that process and the public was informed in several board sessions and working forums. That is the timeline we have followed, with the school budget components being approved on May 10th, and the central components on May 24th (which is actually a move from May 31st in our timeline).