Rally or Roll Over

Rally or Roll Over

On January 14, 2004, Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie and Tanika White wrote the following:

“Baltimore school officials are threatening to lay off 1,200 more employees - primarily teachers - next month to deal with a worsening financial crisis if employee unions do not agree to either an eight-day furlough or a 6 percent to 7 percent pay cut through June 30.”

School officials, they added, acknowledged that:

“The system, which faces a $58 million deficit, is moving toward insolvency - that it will not be able to make payroll through the end of the school year without some assistance from the state or city government.”

A few weeks ago, City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises revealed that the school system has a $130 million budget gap. She is also threatening to lay off 1,000 or more staff, including teachers. Last Friday, traditional schools found out that their budgets would be cut by an average of 20 percent. Charter school funding was slashed 8 percent per child and is down 11 percent from just two years ago. Charter schools in Baltimore City are now funded at pre-2008 levels.

Of course it’s easy for critics of charter schools in Baltimore to say 8 or even 11 percent is better than 20 percent. These folks either don’t understand, or are choosing not to fully appreciate, the fundamental difference between how charter schools and traditional schools are funded. Charter schools are funded through a formula set by state law. The law mandates that charter schools receive more direct funding, and significantly fewer services from the district, in return for more autonomy. Traditional schools, by contrast, receive less direct funding and more services from the school system. The two types of schools, then, receive commensurate funding.

Charter schools, therefore, may experience a less significant revenue cut (20 percent compared to 8) but the charter schools’ exposure on the expense side is significantly higher than a traditional public school. It’s that exposure—through things like escalating salaries, benefits, and facility costs—that destabilizes charter schools here in Baltimore City in ways that are very similar to traditional schools seeing 20 percent cuts.

Traditional schools get punched in the gut. Charter schools get punched in the head. The entire school system is reeling. Before moving on, I need to say one additional thing. Critics of charter schools often like to say that schools—all schools—should be funded the same way. This argument has merits and there has been work around this issue recently by a number of advocates. Regardless, traditional schools in Baltimore City are not all funded alike! That’s right, charter schools are funded differently than traditional schools and traditional schools are very often funded differently than one another. This is perhaps a topic for another post. But it’s true. And it is a point that shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed.

But back to the point at hand—2004. The parallels between then and now are obvious. At the moment, however, it is my estimation that things are actually worse now. Here’s why and here’s what I think we need to do about it.

A little context first. It is tempting to conclude that Dr. Santelises’ bad budget news is a false flag of sorts, a political play to bring in more money or get the upper-hand in the ongoing union negotiations. We’ve heard these warnings like this before, after all. Only last year former CEO Gregory Thornton said we had a $70 plus million budget problem. The year before that he claimed it was $141 million. After much turmoil and haggling, both of these fiscal challenges eventually got resolved. A few weeks back a principal friend of mine, a veteran who knows exactly how to run a school, called and asked if this year was more of the same. My answer was simple: No.

What’s different this time is that the problems were never really solved before—they were kicked down the road a bit. This, alas, has been a budget strategy employed by the school system for several years now. We’ve had, as a school system, any number of vexingly challenging management problems to address over the past five to seven years and, for any number of reasons—some of them good and logical, some inexcusably bad—avoided them. Here are but a few of these problems: the implications of the 21st Century Building Plan; the implications of the teacher and principal contracts; the implications of Race to the Top Grant funding running out; the implications of flat revenue from the state; the implications of declining enrollment; the implications of having a large charter sector running inside a school system.

All these issues have been around a long time now, and they haven’t been confronted. They’ve been avoided, kicked down the road. In late winter of 2017, there is no more road ahead. We’ve got a $130 million problem this year. It’s reasonable to think it could be just as bad next year, and maybe even the year after that.

In 2004, then Mayor O’Malley rallied the city. Governor Ehrlich initially offered $42 million towards the school system’s $58 million deficit, but it came with strings attached. More state money meant more state control. It also was politically motivated: Ehrlich knew, as we all did, that O’Malley was going to run for governor in 2006. His life-preserver was a political noose in disguise.

O’Malley rejected Ehrlich’s offer and decided to use most of the city's rainy-day fund to pay the school system's bills in conjunction with a $16 million loan from the local Abell Foundation. Teachers got paid. The school system moved on. Thornton funding kicked in. Baltimore was still Baltimore—as Season Four of The Wire shows so starkly—but things did get better.

I remember O’Malley from those days. He was a far cry from the guy making a pitch to a single voter in Iowa in the middle of a blizzard last election season. He was motivated and inspired to fight for the city. That’s what we need now. We need energy. We need organization. It’s fine to fret about the national scene. But we need to worry about and take care of Baltimore first.

How?

We have to rally: The Baltimore Education Coalition funding rally is next Thursday night in Annapolis and we have to go. Our school communities should go. Residents of the city at large should go. We need to collectively voice our concerns and our outrage.

This isn’t nearly enough though.

We have to press and push and demand that the mayor takes charge and takes action. She ran on the importance of education. She needs to have a vested interest in what’s happening now. If it’s political interest that motivates her, as it did O’Malley, then so be it. If she wants more control of the schools, then she should/could move to get it. But give something, a lot, in return. The people of Baltimore City need Mayor Pugh to give more than she is currently giving. A lot more.

We have to demand more from school system leaders. I get it: we need more money. We all need more money. What are we going to do with it? How are we going to staunch the enrollment decline? How are we going to re-organize our school system so that we are not spending $151 million more, annually, than similar school systems around the country? And, yes, what’s the plan for dealing with charter schools? It’s fine enough to try and crush charter schools in court and win total control over them. But then what? What happens when there are no more charter schools in Baltimore City? Where do the approximately 15,000 children currently enrolled in charter schools go? We’ve tried for more than a decade now to run a large charter school system inside a larger school system and it has utterly failed. Think of it this way. When schools share space it rarely works. When two families share a single house it rarely works. Fighting is inevitable even if people respect one another, even if they love one another. The charters and the school system need some separation, some boundaries, some space. Without these things in place both charter schools and traditional schools will suffer—and thus the school system as a whole will suffer.

We have to get our kids involved. Over the years I’ve been reluctant to charge up students in my schools to advocate aggressively to seek additional funding. I certainly don’t have a strong moral position against it. It’s just that I’ve seen things to suggest, at least in some cases, that adults are manipulating kids as much as kids are making informed decisions on their own. This isn’t always the case, of course. I know that. I’m just saying I’ve seen it enough to take pause.

But kids are clearly losing now. All kids. And we need to provide age-appropriate ways for them to engage in meaningful ways around this issue. Dr. Santelises says that kids are about to lose all the things they love about school. The kids themselves should be given the opportunity to speak out, to speak up and say just what those things are and what that loss means. The adults need to listen to the kids—and act.

A final point. Baltimore has been through a lot lately. It’s year after year of budget problems in our schools. The murder rate is spiking. The Uprising is still fresh in our minds. Immigration agents are detaining undocumented immigrants in Highlandtown. B-more ain’t always easy living.

But where in the world is? Baltimore, and its citizens, need to do more to fight for the city and its children. It starts there. We need, over time, to organize more and rally harder so the city is less dependent on Annapolis. Getting to this place will require more—more of everything we have to give even though we all thought we had already given all there was to give.

The alternative to this collective and massive giving effort is rolling over. Surrendering.

I say let’s rally.