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Educationby Bess Keller6:08 pmMar 14, 20120

City schools CEO vows to protect schools over administration in this year’s budget

Above: Baltimore city schools CEO Andres Alonso, at a news conference earlier this year on school construction funding.

Baltimore City school officials are pledging this to parents and principals: if individual school budgets get any tighter next year, it won’t be because the central office has decided to control more dollars.

The school system’s preliminary plan, presented yesterday at a public hearing on the budget, is to boost the schools’ per-pupil allocations enough to give principals at least as much flexible spending power in the coming school year as they have in this one.

“This year we’re taking care of the schools first,” said schools chief Andrés Alonso.

That doesn’t mean, however, that schools will have more spending power. The little more money they could expect under the proposal might be eaten up by rising costs. Principals spend their budget money mainly on staff and programs, with other expenses at schools, such as some services for kids with special needs and their own salaries, paid for from the system’s budget.

School officials said that, in a departure from the usual budget process, the central office would find ways to absorb increased costs that have already contributed to a $35 million shortfall in this year’s $1.3 billion budget.

In the 2012-13 school year, some teachers will be paid more under the provisions of the landmark 2010 teachers’ contract, and the cost of benefits is expected to increase.

Those costs are estimated to come to about $33 million and will be covered by new per-pupil allocations to the schools, said Michael Frist, the chief financial officer of City Schools.The shift in dollars would be covered in part by contingency money saved up in past years and in part by future cuts to money controlled by district officials.

Per Pupil Amount Going Up

Frist said the amount sent to schools for each of their pupils would rise by $155 to $5,155 next year—about a 3% increase. Under the system’s four-year-old funding system, schools receive money for every student enrolled and extra for students scoring at the lowest and highest of the proficiency levels on state tests.

That amount would change slightly, from $994 this year to $1,000 next year. The other “weights” such as for students with special needs and those in danger of dropping out, would remain the same.

Four years ago, schools received more than twice as much for students who scored in the top tier on state tests and for those who scored in the bottom tier.

One principal of a small city school, who said she has yet be given next year’s “numbers” from North Avenue, welcomed the extra $155 per pupil allotment.

The added funding “would be beneficial,” said the principal, who declined to be named. “We have a small population and small money–any little bit helps.”

The principal added that this year she has “no money” and couldn’t add any new programs .  The year before, she said, was better.

Over the last few years, the money that school system  as a whole has gotten from the city and the state to run the schools has been roughly flat, and the coming year is projected to be the same, according to school officials.

But who controls the dollars that go directly to schools for spending on site is an important question under the accountability system that Alonso has instituted.

Under Alonso’s funding system, many of the dollars that go to schools for use there have been budgeted by the schools rather than headquarters. In exchange for that fiscal autonomy, schools are supposed to produce higher student achievement. Schools that don’t perform are ultimately under threat of being closed.

It’s up-in-the air what cuts might be made to dollars spent centrally in the upcoming schools’ budget. Michael Sarbanes, the director of engagement for City Schools, did not rule out central-office layoffs, and he said the City Schools’ roster of contracts would be examined. “We won’t know the specific implications yet,” he said.

 Characteristics v. Incentives

The final budget proposal as approved by the school board is not expected until late April, after the legislative session in Annapolis ends.

About 70% of the budget is funded by the state, which pushes Baltimore City’s schools budget late in the budget season. State budgeteers estimate a $1 billion gap between revenues and projected expenses.

School board members were originally scheduled to vote yesterday on the specific amounts of money tied to students – the “weights” – that determine a large part of individual school budgets.

But Alonso said after the meeting that board members are still struggling with the weighting scheme. He said a fundamental question was whether the weights should mainly be about the characteristics of students – such as low test scores – or whether they should act as incentives for schools to perform better – such as more money for more kids coming to school.

But, he added, he’s not keen about weighting changes for the coming year. “What schools tend to ask for is predictability, and in the past two years as we’ve gotten tighter budgets, we’ve tried to figure ways to  mainly be predictable.”

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