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Public Calls For Greater Transparency in School Budgets

Public Calls For Greater Transparency in School Budgets

BALTIMORE (WBFF) - Tense moments at Tuesday night’s Baltimore City School Board meeting as a city resident demanded answers concerning how money is spent.

James Williams was on a mission when he sat down before the Baltimore City School Board.

“Show me the money,” declared Williams. “Due diligence, do your job.”

Williams is a long-time educational advocate in Baltimore who founded the group, Faithful Few. His current focus is on individual school budgets, which can be found on the District’s website for all 177 schools. They’re intended to provide transparency. Williams says they don’t.

“Scrutinization of school budgets needs to be more intensified down to line items, specifically,” said Williams during an interview with Project Baltimore prior to the school board meeting. “The language is vague. The expenditures are vague. And there is a lot of confusion to parents and people who pay taxes as to what is being done with the money.”

Project Baltimore looked at a few school budgets, which do raise questions. Baltimore City College, for example, reports spending $20,000 on membership dues – by far the most of any city high school. Memberships on what? We don’t know. Achievement Academy, which only has one sport, reports $20,659 on “athletic equipment and supplies”. Yet, Poly, City College and Western, which combine to have dozens of sports, don’t even list athletic spending in their budgets. Then, there’s schools like Leith Walk Elementary which reports $264,099 on something called “Other Professional Services”.

“Just saying school services means nothing to people who look at that,” stated Williams.

Two weeks ago, Project Baltimore contacted all five of the previously mentioned schools asking for explanations on the above line-items. We heard nothing back.

“Everybody here needs to look at the individual school budgets. If you don’t, you’re failing in your responsivities. That’s all I have to say,” Williams concluded to the board.

City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises responded.

“Not every line item that someone does not understand equates to mismanagement of funds... The goal is transparency,” said Santelises.

“There needs to be constants in the line items for each school budget, ok? If you don’t do that then you’re going to have continual misspent funding,” replied Williams.

Santelises added there is a hotline at North Avenue for parents to call if they have concerns. “They should call our office immediately, hold on sir let me finish, particularly as we enter the new budget season.”

Williams snapped back, “The phone system down here in a nightmare.”

“I’m glad you’re here saying it which is why I’m giving a response and not just sitting here because I want to make sure the public knows there is access,” said Santelises.

Willians, then, said “Thank you” and stepped away from the microphone.

“You’re very welcome,” replied Santelises.

The District does have a history of spending issues. In 2013, a federal audit found grant money sent to City Schools, intended to help poor students, was spent on dinner cruises, makeovers and meals.

After our story on individual school budgets aired at 10 pm Wednesday night December 13, 2017 Baltimore City Public Schools did issue a response to Project Baltimore per our freedom of information request. That response is printed below in its entirety.

Jeffrey Keene

Executive Producer

Project Baltimore

Background on school budgeting

Unlike most school districts, where the majority of funds are centrally allocated and individual schools have limited discretion over how those funds are spent, City Schools allocates as many dollars as possible directly to schools for flexible spending. School leaders build their own budgets, seeking input from their school communities to identify priorities that guide decision making. They review their budgets with principal supervisors (“instructional leadership executive directors”), and their submitted budgets are checked and approved by a sequence of district offices accountable for ensuring that various requirements are met (e.g., for providing special education services or programming required by the state). This budget development process takes place in the spring for the subsequent school year.

The school budget files available on the district website represent school leaders’ anticipated expenditures for FY18, as of Spring 2017. Since then, school budgets may have changed due to differences in projected versus actual school enrollment or with amendments to transfer funds across line items, based on new information, circumstances, or actual quotations for goods and services.

When assigning funds to line items, some categories are narrowly defined (e.g., “transportation field trips”), reflecting dollars for specific spending common across schools. Other categories are broad to reflect the range of goods and services that a school determines will meet its needs (e.g., “other professional services,” which can include after-school program providers; tutors or other instructional support for students; providers for school-based professional development; etc.).

Specific inquiries

Response to the specific inquiries will be provided under the district’s MPIA processes. These include information on budgets for the schools and line items noted below.

Achievement Academy

• Cell Phones*

• Athletic equipment/supplies

Alexander Hamilton Elementary School

• Other Professional Services (FSF)

• Other Professional Services (Title I, Part A)

Baltimore City College

• Membership Dues

• Costs for athletic equipment and supplies, for which no line item is included

Baltimore Polytechnic Institute

• Cell Phones*

• Costs for athletic equipment and supplies, for which no line item is included

Leith Walk

• Other Professional Services (FSF)

* The district has a central contract that provides an annual rate of $818 per phone; an individual school may also budget funds if it anticipates a need to purchase new or replace broken phones

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