Rewriting the Project Baltimore Narrative

The Outrage:

City Schools Slashes Maintenance Budget, cites increasing costs

Baltimore Schools Maintenance Nightmare

7th Grader Getting 1st Grade Education: City School Violates Federal Law

No Hope for Urban Schools


These are all headlines from Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s Project Baltimore — an investigative series airing on local affiliate Fox45 — which has done a phenomenal job of illuminating incredibly important issues in Baltimore City schools and inciting outrage at the inequity provided to Baltimore’s kids. The trouble is, Project Baltimore’s mission to “save our schools” seems only to extend as far as vocalizing complaints while remaining unconcerned with solutions. Do they want to help kids or hurt an institution?

While it is fantastic that Project Baltimore has succeeded in bringing light to these inequities, and more importantly, engaging citizens who were not previously concerned with educational equity, the reality is that the issues raised in the Project Baltimore investigations are primarily issues that need to be fixed at the state level. The series instead incites misguided anger toward Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPSS), completely neglecting the decades of inequitable funding of BCPSS and encouraging a narrow-minded blame game rather than a broader, comprehensive analysis of how we got to this point in the first place.

We at Baltimoreans for Educational Equity (BEE) want to ensure that the focus of our outrage and attention is where it belongs — on how to solve the problem. And that starts at the state level, with a focus on more equitable funding. If we are going to remove the barriers that have blocked the path to success for generations of Baltimore City students, we need to ensure that state lawmakers put kids first.

BCPSS receives funding from three sources — the federal government, the State of Maryland, and the City of Baltimore. The most significant contribution, accounting for roughly two-thirds of total district revenue, comes from the state. When critics look at the numbers, it’s understandable to misinterpret the amount of funding that Baltimore City receives as compared to other districts in the state. However, the primary source of funding for most school districts is local property taxes. In urban districts like Baltimore City, the property tax base can be low because we have a) so many entities that do not pay property taxes (such as our TIF projects, government buildings, universities, foundations, and churches),  and b) concentrated poverty that lowers property values. The number of people living in poverty in Baltimore City is 137,964, as compared to the next closest of the 23 counties with 84,744 individuals.

It’s no secret that our state has underfunded Baltimore City schools for decades, as evidenced by the state having strayed from its own funding formula. The current state funding formula led to a steady increase in funding from the State from 2002 until 2009, when the state cut the inflation factor from the formula. So while expenses continued to rise steadily for City Schools, state funding remained flat. If the inflation factor had stayed in place — as was legally required — Maryland’s Department of Legislative Services determined than an extra $290M per year, every year since 2009, should have been available to Baltimore’s students.

This egregious underfunding has led to calls by education advocates for a reevaluation of the state funding formula, and the Commission on Innovation & Excellence in Education — better known as the Kirwan Commission —  has been finalizing its recommendations for a new, more equitable funding formula to present to state lawmakers. If you were not taken aback by the Department of Legislative Services reporting that the State has been shortchanging Baltimore’s minority students by the tune of $290M per year, then consider the Kirwan Commission’s independent study, which was commissioned by the Maryland State Department of Education, led by the governor’s own appointees. This study determined that the State is underfunding Baltimore schools not by $290M per year, but rather $386M per year.  This amount, when divided by BCPSS’ 80,592 students, means each Baltimore City student is personally being shortchanged $4,890 per year on their public education.

The new funding formula will affect our current kindergartners through their entire K-12 education. This is our one shot to get it right. We need to ensure that our state lawmakers will not continue the cycle of systemic racism that has neglected Baltimore City students for decades by underfunding their education.

Let’s focus on two huge issues that have been a focus in Project Baltimore’s reporting and that pertain directly to inadequate state funding: facilities and special education.

Facilities:

For starters, the school closures and facilities nightmare we saw on Project Baltimore and all over social media was simply not a matter of BCPSS neglect or mismanagement. As a matter of fact, BCPSS has been advocating to fix the terrible conditions in the schools and the myriad repairs needed for nearly a decade. In 2010, BCPSS initiated a third-party facilities condition assessment, which would come to be known as the Jacobs Report, released in June of 2012. This report clearly deemed more than two-thirds of the schools buildings to be in “very poor” condition and highlighted the need for urgent action, leading to the 21st Century School Buildings Plan.

Then-CEO, Andres Alonso, is quoted in the Jacobs Report press release as stating:

“The Jacobs Report is huge because it tells this story in a clear and irrefutable way. It’s a story about unacceptable conditions for our kids... The Jacobs Report gives us what we need to say, ‘No more’ to fifth-rate school buildings and to provide buildings that support the best possible education and, by extension, forward movement for our kids and our city.”

So if we said “no more” to fifth-rate school buildings in 2012, why do we have fifth-rate school buildings in 2018? For one thing, the State’s illogical (and ultimately harmful) insistence upon incremental funding has prevented much of the work from being completed. We need a governor who will commit to ending incremental funding of capital improvements to City Schools to fix facilities issues. What is incremental funding, you ask?

Say it costs $1.5M to replace a failing boiler in one of our school buildings. This isn’t unheard of; at an average of 50 years old, Baltimore City’s 159 school buildings are by far the oldest school facilities in the entire state. So BCPSS submits a request to the State to have the boiler repaired. The State is accountable for keeping the facilities functional and up-to-date, and so of course they approve this request… but in increments of $500,000 a year over three years. You can’t fix a third of a boiler. So the boiler gets worse; it continues to deteriorate. The cost to fix it increases.

This is plainly how one would go about this process if one did not want to fund a new boiler. This creates a bottleneck for the $1.5M, dependent on the municipality being capable of fronting the remainder of the money. The $500K can not be spent on a new boiler unless City Schools can cover the balance up front and then receive the reimbursement from the state over the course of the three years.

Or consider, for instance, the actual example below. In 2014, HVAC improvements at The Historic Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary were estimated to cost $7.5 million. The state approved $6 million to be allocated to BCPSS… over the span of three years (and apparently finding a $1.5 million discount somewhere, too). Since, as we mentioned, incremental boilers don’t exist, the kids at The Historic Samuel Coleridge Taylor Elementary were left without a boiler for three years because no one wants to do a project without being offered payment in full. When the full $6 million finally came in three year later, the cost of repair is increased to about $8.4 million (but who knows, maybe the same place the state found a $1.5 million discount was offering a $2.4 million discount three years later).

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The State’s use of partial funding counts on Baltimore City being poor for their math to work. Four of BCPSS’ capital improvement projects for 2017 had to be rescinded because they were partially funded; they were all HVAC projects. Meanwhile, districts with wealthier populations can front the money for large projects, and the state reimburses them. Incremental funding is just another system to make sure Baltimore City stays the way it is, and it must end. The State needs to pay for school repairs up front.

Here’s where Baltimore’s concentrated poverty plays a large role in state funding and perceived mismanagement of funds at BCPSS. The State of Maryland has provided funding for BCPSS Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) upon request, but where that funding comes from is not entirely State money. For each request, the state will allocate funds, and Baltimore City local (BCPSS and Baltimore City) needs to match 7% for each project. In other words, to meet the request, the State agrees to pay $x, and then BCPSS is mandated to pay $y, while Baltimore City is mandated to pay $z. Requiring BCPSS to have $y and the City of Baltimore to have $z available in their contingency funds. Which is not often the case in a city with a low tax base and concentrated poverty lowering property values.

For example, BCPSS is currently slated to receive approximately $27.1M in new authorization for FY2018 from the State. However, $10.2M will come from City Schools’ reserve contingency account, and $17M will come from the City of Baltimore’s General Obligation bonds. With BCPSS devoting over $10M to these projects, this means they will have $10M less in their budget for any unforeseen infrastructure issues or expenses that pop up, such as the facilities crisis of January 2018.

Mind you, only Capital Improvement Projects (CIPs) are funded through the public school construction program, while maintenance projects are funded through the City Schools’ general funds. The difference between CIPs and maintenance projects is that CIPs reference a replacement of a system that is past its life cycle while maintenance projects reference fixing an existing system.

In one scathing story, Project Baltimore claims that the reason BCPSS hasn’t been spending its money wisely, causing the facilities crisis in the first place, is because they spend an exorbitant amount on administrative costs. BCPSS spends just under five percent of its total operating budget of $1.3B on administrative costs, which is higher than our neighboring school districts.

Now, it has already been mentioned that maintenance projects on school facilities come from City Schools’ general fund. Facilities issues do not end with the boilers or the pipes; issues that stemmed from the Jacobs Report and January’s prolonged cold addressed windows, plumbing, heat coils, installation issues... for nearly ten years we've been talking about the really bad condition of the school buildings, and it took this prolonged cold weather to take it seriously.

After “following the money,” Project Baltimore stated, “this is money that doesn’t get to the classroom or boiler room.” It may not be an obvious lie, but some of this is money that makes it to the classroom and the boiler room. The data source used for this story is being misrepresented at best and willfully misinterpreted at worst. The census data reflect high-level categories of spending on administration at BCPSS Central Office. The problem is that there’s no way to know if the costs that BCPSS classifies as administrative costs are the same as those that are classified as administrative costs in other districts. Who knows what those categorizations are in other states; it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.

For example, because of BCPSS’ network structure, the Academic Content Liaison positions, a teacher and content expert, are classified as district office employees because they’re a part of the broader BCPSS network rather than headquartered in one school. But in another district the function of providing academic support in schools would generally be classified as a school expense. Not an administrative cost. This money going toward administrative costs is in fact making it to the classroom in Baltimore City.

So the school closures and facilities nightmare highlighted in so many Project Baltimore stories was not a matter of BCPSS neglect or mismanagement, nor was the problem unique to BCPSS, as was obvious to anyone who lived in Baltimore during this cold, especially the plethora of residents who were without water or heat for weeks on end. It was just the perfect storm for BCPSS.

First, we have a capital funding program that is not fully funded. The incremental funding does nothing if BCPSS doesn’t have the capital to cover the balance for the repairs needed. Second, Baltimore City has the oldest school buildings in the entire state. Twenty-three percent were built prior to 1946, and 74 percent were built between 1946 and 1985. Third, Baltimore faced an unprecedented stretch of freaking cold weather. Sustained cold. All three factors converged at once.

The difference between the schools being without heat or water during this time and private residences in the same circumstances is that ample attention was given to the conditions in schools, causing the repairs to happen much more rapidly. BCPSS actually had someone sleeping in the boiler room at the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute to restart boilers when they went off to ensure kids were arriving to a warm school environment each morning. In that neighborhood, Baltimore Gas and Electric limits gas flow at night to be sure neighbors have gas. This isn’t a BCPSS mandate; it’s a city infrastructure issue that limits gas use by neighborhood. When there’s not enough gas going through the pipes, they automatically shut off, and so this employee tasked with having sleepovers at Poly would manually turn it back on to keep the heat on overnight. My friend in East Baltimore who was without running water for twelve days straight did not have the luxury of a live-in city employee getting his pipes back up and running.

Special Education:

The second major area of inadequacy in current funding is in meeting the needs of Baltimore’s special education students. The current state funding formula does not adequately address the cost of special education needs, but state and federal mandates remain nonetheless.

While service costs have been increasing, the share of the costs covered by federal and state funding has been decreasing. BCPSS boasts the highest percentage of special education students (over 17 percent) of any district in the state. In 2009, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) covered 33 percent of the cost of educating students with disabilities. In 2014, that number dropped to 16 percent. As a result, states and districts are scrambling to pick up a greater share of the tab leading them to rethink their state’s funding mechanisms.

In order to meet the legal requirements for providing appropriate education to Baltimore City’s special education population, $300M is spent on this 17 percent of Baltimore City’s students. However, BCPSS only receives $80M from the State for educating our special education students, meaning another $220M needs to come from BCPSS’ general education budget. This is nearly 20 percent of BCPSS’ overall $1.3B operating budget being spent specifically to provide special education services that are required by law to meet students’ needs, but for which they receive insufficient funding.

National funding of education has receded and devolved to the states. However, now we are witnessing a further devolution of responsibility to the localities. The funding mechanism for Maryland’s special education population is included in the state’s primary funding formula.

To be clear, BCPSS, just like any other school district in the United States, is accountable to upholding national education laws and mandates. However, we continually face a massive downward spiral of not only who is responsible for funding the education of our city’s special education students but of the concept of publicly funded education. This downward spiral, the passing down of fiscal responsibility for education from the federal to the state to the district level, is amplified in districts with concentrated poverty and high special education populations. Districts like Baltimore City.

The Spiral:

The examples of bad funding mechanisms and business practices, poorly maintenanced HVAC problems in individual schools, and federally-mandated but underfunded special education programs are difficult enough to deal with in isolation. However, in order to solve these seemingly disparate issues, it is important that we acknowledge that they are interrelated in order to address the overall regression of Baltimore City Schools, because this creates what’s known as a “feedback loop”. The idea is that in the situation in which “problem A” promotes “problem B”, and “problem B” promotes “problem A”, until problem A and B are decoupled, both will accelerate and worsen. When applied to this discussion, it is easy to see how such a feedback loop makes each problem more intractable. Let’s take the perspective of the boiler as an example:

  1. A school boiler breaks.

  2. The bad business practices of the state fund the repair in such a way that stretches payment over three years, apparently assuming a revolution in boiler technology is just around the corner. One of the reasons for this piecemeal payment is because we’ve simultaneously underfunded education while (rightfully) mandating spending on particular programs, such as Special Education.

  3. The cost of repair increases over time.

  4. The amount of money allocated is now inadequate to repair the boiler.

  5. Now fixing the boiler will cost significantly more, but there is no money to do the work, because BCPSS has no reserved funding due to the large fraction of the budget that is federally mandated to be spent on special education (this, of course, is set against the backdrop of a city with a proportionately higher number of SpEd kids for myriad reasons).

  6. The boiler fails. School is miserable. No one learns, including the SpEd kids.

  7. Project Baltimore now has another “scandal” to write about, framing BCPSS as a corrupt bureaucracy that is running on a treadmill fueled by taxpayer dollars.

  8. The politics of this favor state-level politicians, since it’s the schools being blamed, not them.

  9. The state, relieved of the pressure to respond adequately, fails to implement adequate reforms to funding, completing the cycle that produces the status quo, but worse, with each cycle.

The Solution:

So Baltimore City, unlike other districts in the state of Maryland, has this tiny pot of money to work with to begin with due to our low tax base. The facilities projects not being fully funded and being delivered in increments by the state, causing BCPSS to spot the balance, means there is less in the budget to adequately fund educating our special education population. The special education population being underfunded by the State and BCPSS needing to spot the extra $220M means there is less for facilities. And down the spiral we go.

To truly get to the heart of the very important issues illuminated in the Project Baltimore narrative, we need to be concerned with the domino effect of the State — the primary funder of public schools — underfunding multiple mandatory imperatives. We need to ensure that our fellow Baltimoreans, our governor, and our state legislature acknowledge the systemic failures that have crippled Baltimore City students for decades. Exposing problems with embarrassing headlines can be good if coupled with a solution. I am unsure if Sinclair Broadcasting Group - the largest owner of local TV stations in the nation and the only TV station owner that produces its own content and distributes to local affiliates, mind you - and its offspring, Project Baltimore are not offering solutions or are not interested in solutions. However, I am sure that Baltimore’s students deserve solutions.

Our outrage is justified, but we can not let it divide us. Project Baltimore will have you believe that the enemy is BCPSS in one story, the “bad” students in the next, the teachers in the next, the parents in the next, and so on. We’re in this together, Baltimore. Let’s rewrite this narrative together.

On March 11th, Baltimoreans for Educational Equity will host a platform assembly to ensure that the next Governor of Maryland is truly accountable to our students, parents, and educators. Concerned Baltimoreans will come together to engage with the issues in ways that aren’t tarnished by Sinclair Broadcasting Group’s agenda. Here, we will shape an agenda for BEE's upcoming Candidate Forum on Education. All are welcome, and childcare and Spanish interpretation will be provided.

Kimberly Coleman is a 13th year Baltimore City Schools teacher and member of the leadership team at Baltimoreans for Educational Equity.

Kim Coleman

Kimberly Coleman is a 13th year Baltimore City Schools teacher and member of the leadership team at Baltimoreans for Educational Equity.