Despite Fightback, Top Principals Say Schools Still Facing Painful Layoffs, Increased Class Sizes
On the latest episode of The Real Baltimore, leading principals Ashley Cook, Job Grotsky and Matt Hornbeck discuss what equitable funding would mean for Baltimore public schools, the advantages enjoyed by charter schools, and what it takes to make a school ‘great’.
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real Baltimore. I’m your host, Jaisal Noor. It’s not the worst-case scenario many feared. But the Baltimore school system is still facing layoffs amidst what was a $130 million budget deficit.
Months of rallies, demonstrations, and lobbying, succeeded in helping bring in increased contributions from the city, state and school system, to the tune of about $100 million. But a sizeable shortfall remains. In a moment, we’ll be joined by a panel of school principals to discuss how these cuts will impact their schools, and what a just solution to the seemingly yearly budget crisis looks like.
But first, this story by our reporters Stephen Janis, and Taya Graham.
TAYA GRAHAM: When nearly 50 Baltimore school principals gathered outside City Hall earlier this month, they brandished, not just signs and placards, but budgets. The unusual gathering was intended to call attention to the $130 million structural deficit facing city schools.
CRAIG RIVERS: We want to make it clear it is going to be close to impossible to give our students the 21st education that they deserve without this funding.
TAYA GRAHAM: But it was also a teachable moment as principals recounted how the fiscal crisis would affect their students with larger classes, fewer teachers, and cutbacks in the arts.
PRINCIPAL, MERVO HIGH SCHOOL: Over the last few weeks, I have literally developed 28 different scenarios to submit for my budget. All which include losing multiple teachers, cutting enrichment programs, such as the arts, and then eliminating nearly my entire support staff.
TAYA GRAHAM: In a series of exclusive interviews by The Real News Baltimore with whistleblower teachers, we learned the city was already facing a shortage of personnel and materials prior to the deficit.
WHISTLEBLOWER: There’s just a lot of things that we don’t have. I mean, I spend thousands of… over the last ten years; I’ve probably spent over $10,000 in buying stuff for my classroom.
TAYA GRAHAM: Since then, the fiscal picture has become even murkier. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has pledged to dedicate $60,000 from a rainy day fund over three years, and transfer $5 million from the police department to school funding to fix the gap. City Council President Jack Young has also called for $10 million to be redirected from policing into education.
And recently Governor Larry Hogan committed an extra $23 million to school funding for the current fiscal year; funding city officials say will stave off the crisis for now. But looming over these short term fixes, is a dilemma State Senator Bill Ferguson, who represents the city, says will continue to put the city in the red: the need to attract more students.
BILL FERGUSON: This is the challenging part of how to fix this problem. We have by far the most number of schools with 350 or less students -– across the state.
TAYA GRAHAM: A picture made more complicated by recent census reports, showing the city has lost 6,000 residents since 2015. It’s a portrait of the city in the confluence of myriad forces that all threaten the future of public education. Trends educators say must be addressed without hurting the real future of the city: the children.
This is Taya Graham and Stephen Janis, reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland.
JAISAL NOOR: And now we’re joined in our studio by our three guests. Ashley Cook is the principal of Mount Washington School, a K through 8 school in North Baltimore. Ashley’s been an educator in city schools for 12 years, serving as a classroom teacher, among many other roles.
Job Grotsky is in his 4th year as principal of Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School. His goal is to include community partners in helping his students get the opportunities they deserve, both in and out of the classroom.
And Matt Hornbeck is in his 14th year serving as a principal at Hampstead Hill Academy, a 780-student pre-K through 8th grade neighborhood school, in Southeast Baltimore.
Thank you all for joining us today.
PRINCIPALS: Thank you very much for having us.
JAISAL NOOR: It’s been a tumultuous time for city schools. There was the $130 million budget deficit. That’s been cut down a significant amount. But you’re all going to have to make some hard cuts over the next few days and weeks. Matt, let’s start with you. What are those cuts going to look like for your school?
MATT HORNBECK: Hampstead Hill Academy lost about $950,000 initially. Through the efforts mentioned in your opening comments, and the piece we heard, we will get about $400,000 back. And so, it’s not as dire as it was. We will be raising class size in some grades. And we will be doing without some positions that we have decided will minimally impact programming for students.
But nevertheless, we don’t need fewer positions, we need more talented people in the school system and it is not a good year, it’s not a good budget cycle. And it’s very difficult. Our enrolment is growing, and we are at scale, but in smaller schools and district-wide, the budget outlook in order to really turn it around, we need to attract and keep families in Baltimore City.
JAISAL NOOR: And Ashley, how about you? You’re at Mount Washington, which is considered one of the top schools in the city. How are these cuts going to be affecting you?
ASHLEY COOK: Yeah. We initially lost about $945,000, and through all of the advocacy efforts, and the commitments from the state, the city, and the school system, we are recouping back around $650,000. So, initially that seems like pretty significant revenue bringing back, but we are still going to have to suffer some cuts, most specifically in one of our administrators. My school has two physical campuses with two physical addresses. Almost really like having two separate schools. And in order to…
JAISAL NOOR: And that’s split between K through 5 and…
ASHLEY COOK: It’s K through 3, K to 3, and then 4 to 8.
JAISAL NOOR: Okay.
ASHLEY COOK: But in order to purchase back some of the teacher positions and support staff positions that we were facing to lose, I said we’ll have to cut a teacher position, losing my assistant principal. And this was all to just… to keep our class sizes manageable, to what they currently are. So, still around 30, 31 children, in addition to having the support staff to assist with those large numbers.
So, a lot of my families, as well as my staff and I are still a little concerned around what the climate and the culture could potentially look like, with losing an administrator, to operate our second building.
JAISAL NOOR: And when we’re talking about class sizes, for people that haven’t been in a classroom, Job, can you talk about why that’s so important, and also how the cuts are going to impact your school?
JOB GROTSKY: Yeah. Class size has been a focus for us at Mount Royal, because we don’t want class sizes above a certain number. We have a magic formula, elementary, I think, 25 is a good number. With the fair student-funding model, we can’t have class sizes that are sustainable lower than that and have the program in that we want, the arts, the activities after school. We’ve been able to buy back a few teachers. The focus in the additional money has been to restore the classroom teachers that we would’ve lost.
I think, when you talk about climate in a building, when you have 30, 40 students in a classroom, you can’t ask this of any teacher, no matter how good they are. We also are faced with losing an administrator, as well. So, I think when all the work that we do as principals, when we talk about the climate of the school, you know, when you’re faced with the potential decline of a climate, it’s very worrisome.
And whether it’s increased class sizes or losing administrators, or support staff, or the wraparound services that we all need.
MATT HORNBECK: I agree with Job. Jaisal, the pain that’s been felt in schools, and the anxiety and worry that’s happened these last three or four months, has been unprecedented in many respects. The threat initially, of a thousand layoffs, really sent a pretty powerful shockwave through schools, parents, teachers, you know, many of whom will find jobs in surrounding counties. And that’s a terrible and sad thing to go through.
A lot of us, there are a lot of very committed principals and teachers in the city, families that aren’t going anywhere. I think that we will get through this together, but it’s really nice to be on, what I think is the other end of a real nadir in my tenure, and be on the other side looking forward a little bit, so we can get back to some of the things that we’re trained to do. And rallies are… funding rallies are not in the job description. They’re a part of the work. But they’re not something that we’d normally have to do each year.
JAISAL NOOR: And so, principals this year took the unusual step of doing their own rally. And which is almost unheard of. I’ve been covering public education for several years now around the country, and that’s sort of the last line of defense in many ways. Talk about why you took part and why other principals took part.
MATT HORNBECK: Ashley –- Miss Cook spoke -– Principal Cook spoke a that rally. And our partners at BUILD –- Baltimore United In Leadership Development -– helped organize and coordinate principals. I think there were at least 50 of us at that initial rally.
JAISAL NOOR: You actually refused to turn in your budgets.
MATT HORNBECK: Yes. We waited. And we wanted people to know what the impact really was. This isn’t just numbers. It’s programming and real neighborhood schools and real people, and Ashley, you spoke at…
ASHLEY COOK: Yeah. I was going to say that, like Matt had mentioned, these are unprecedented times, right? It’s the threat, the fear, of losing so many staff members. I know, it personally really hit home. My school is situated in a community where my parents have options to either stay in public education, or go to private schools. And that’s a real point of anxiety around what this could mean for my school, knowing that the Fair Student Funding model is based on enrolment.
So, it was really important for me to take part in the organizing and the advocacy work. One, because I had the support from my school community, but also there was just an entry point for principals to band together, to stand together, and to advocate for our school communities, in a way that we still received support from our district leaders. And I think in previous years, even serving as a district representative, prior to becoming a principal, the climate wasn’t always there.
I feel like for principals to be able to have that autonomy, to be able to step out, and really say to our school leaders, our city leaders and our state leaders, this is more than just money. These are our children’s lives, these are our teachers’ lives, these are the lives of our city. So, this is just really important to be able to stand together as colleagues, to be able to share that message.
JAISAL NOOR: And one of the problems, as we know, is the dropping enrolment. And this environment of the constant threat of budget cuts, that’s not conducive to increasing enrolment.
JOB GROTSKY: Right. In the four years I’ve been at Mount Royal, we’ve seen an increase in parents and families that are staying in the city because of their, “neighborhood school”. You know, basically, we work with community and say what do you want in a school? I was really worried with the budget cuts that some of my families would turn and leave our school.
I think the silver lining of this, is all of our efforts we’ve actually seen the family and the community come together stronger. Which I think a lot of our neighborhood schools have seen, which is very, as a principal, is very heartening. All of the work that we do, we don’t always get that immediate feedback. But, it’s still…
MATT HORNBECK: And the structure, the way that things are set up by the district, by Dr. Santelises and her team, we are communicating information as we get it, and having community budget forums, and organizing our parents and teachers to come to rallies with the support of Central. And I think that the flat funding by the state over these last few years, really hit hard, and it was… that’s the number one thing in my view.
I don’t think teachers are paid too much, or there are too many teachers. I think that the state flat funding the neediest kids in Maryland, year after year after year, has really resulted in unbelievable fiscal challenges in Baltimore City, and we are all trying to build that bridge to the “Kirwan” Commission, and…
JAISAL NOOR: Explain what that is.
MATT HORNBECK: The Kirwan Commission is going to take place, or is taking place, over the next three years in order to advise the legislature in Maryland and Annapolis, to look at adequately, and equitably funding public schools in all 23 counties, and the city in Maryland, and so we hope that that promise comes to fruition. It’s going to be a long road, though, and we need to keep the pressure on, to make sure that our students in Baltimore City are at the table and part of that conversation.
In three years, it’s an election year, and I don’t know that that would be a year that taxes would be raised in order to fund public schools or not. I hope that as soon as they pass the legislation, as soon as we can all agree that students in Maryland public schools should have world-class education opportunities. Whether they live in Howard County, Montgomery County or Baltimore City that the funding would come through.
But schools in other counties are hurting as well. Just not as much as in the city.
JAISAL NOOR: Many would argue that Baltimore has enough funding. It gets higher levels of funding. More needs to be done with what you already have. How do you respond to those kinds of arguments?
ASHLEY COOK: One of the things that I think a lot of the organizing and advocacy work has attempted to do, and I’m hoping that we see that the need to keep doing this, is educating folks around some of the misinformation. Right? So, we have had an external audit in Baltimore City public schools that was shared publicly, and that audit found that there was not mismanagement of dollars.
Compared to our other urban districts across the country, we have some of the slimmest folks… some of the slimmest organizations at Central Office. So, I mean, we have made over years, the changes that need to be made, the sacrifices that needed be made to work with the dollars that we have, the dollars that are provided, just aren’t adequate and equitable. Because our students across the city, it just costs more to fund their education when you have one of the highest percentages of special education, and the highest poverty level in the state. It takes more dollars to be able to provide education, quality education, for those students.
So, my hope is that the organizing that we’ve done, and the advocacy work that we’ve done, has educated all communities in Baltimore City. So that the next election cycle, and as we move towards Kirwan, that we just grow the numbers of students and families and communities that are represented. To be able to fight this flight together, for what’s equitable, and just what’s right and just for children.
JOB GROTSKY: I think an education to do more with less has always been there, but I would say to some of the commentators, come into our schools, and see what our teachers are doing more with less. We have probably the best teachers in Maryland because they have to do more with less year after year. And with this budget crisis, you know, my opening to my staff was, they’re asking us to do more with less again.
I think you can go into any school in Baltimore City and see that there is no excess funds, there is no wasteful funds. You’re talking about choosing bus field trips over paper, one or the other. It shouldn’t have to be one or the other for our students.
ASHLEY COOK: Or people. So, like, choosing a teacher, over paper? Like, that’s not… that’s not fair. No one would run a corporation with all the operational items and not a staff. Right? Like that’s just not right.
JAISAL NOOR: And we heard in the story in the beginning that, and as many know, teachers have to spend out of pocket for many things. And I think DeVos, our new Education Secretary, was sort of schooled on that when she showed up to the White House asking where the pencils were, and many educators responding, asking why she didn’t bring her own pencils to the White House, because teachers have to do the same thing.
But, Matt, I wanted to ask you about the issue of charter schools. Charter schools in Maryland are much different than around the country. For example, they’re unionized. You’re still under the Board of Education, versus other places, where it’s different there. But some say charters have an unfair advantage as far as funding. How do you respond to that?
MATT HORNBECK: I think that in Baltimore, charters have some distinct advantages. We get more cash and fewer services. And we get to roll our dollars over year to year, and we get to pretty much pick our curriculum. And it is a challenge if you are a traditional school, and you can’t roll dollars over year to year. That makes planning very difficult. And when the money goes back to the district or is frozen in March, or February, each year that can make it very difficult.
So, some of those… I think that if you ask any traditional school principal, would they like -– and I won’t put you guys on the spot -– but would you like more cash and fewer services? I would expect most would say that they would like the cash. And um…
JAISAL NOOR: When you say services, what are you referring to?
MATT HORNBECK: Services from the district. So, services that are provided in curriculum and professional development and a myriad of things that the district provides to schools, and so traditional schools get a few thousand dollars less per pupil than charter schools, because charters opt out of… have opted out of those services and get the cash instead.
Even in spite of that, there are equity issues and there are two sides to this discussion. As with most things there’s nothing more passionate that public education, and where you’re going to send the most important thing in your life -– your kid –- to school, and so when it comes down to the money, and how the schools are going to be resourced, that’s equally hot sometimes.
I think that small charters and small traditional schools both suffer from scale issues that are very difficult to overcome, and you can’t have what looks like a school, if you don’t have a certain number of kids.
My own experience in a school that’s at scale, and large, and we have been able to resource everything we wanted to do over the years. And the Baltimore Curriculum Project is a great non-profit operator that’s been around for two decades in Baltimore City, and they are good partners in the work. There are a number of charters suing the district for even more funding. Our school is not part of that lawsuit and we don’t think that that is necessary.
In many respects I think that Maryland has the best charter law in the nation, because it does provide for collective bargaining for teachers. And it does have the authorizer, the charter authorizer, as the Board of Education, and so they can keep an eye on the 65,000 kids, 68,000 kids, that are not in charter schools in Baltimore City.
JAISAL NOOR: And that’s a big reason why Maryland has avoided the charter school scandals that you’ve seen all over the country.
MATT HORNBECK: That’s my opinion that there… and Baltimore City has a rigorous review and renewal process, very rigorous. All schools, including charters, participate in a School Effectiveness Review.
JAISAL NOOR: And I wanted to change gears a bit for the rest of our conversation. Three of you work, are principals, of very effective schools in Baltimore City. If you were able…
JOB GROTSKY: We agree.
JAISAL NOOR: …if you were able to tell us what makes it so great –- we know that the community has a big role in it. You’ve all talked about parent and community involvement. We know that the socioeconomic background of the students does play a factor. But what kind of… what lessons do we need to learn? What things can be replicated in schools across the city and across the country? Now let’s start with you.
ASHLEY COOK: I think it’s just the investment. The investment of people in your nearest school. Your community school, your neighborhood school, the school that you pass on your way to work. I am very fortunate to have a community that’s really involved, both community members who actually send their kids to my school, but then also neighbors who just live in the neighborhood, have no children, but know that this is their investment.
And a lot of my colleagues who are at schools, and principals of schools that are different than mine, they are successful for kind of that same reason, just like finding something to attract people in, to be able to invest. Now we’re investing in children, and these are all of our children whether you live in Baltimore, or work in Baltimore, if you have any connection to this city, it’s like that time investment, that resource investment, just being concerned around what is needed in that school, I feel like has been one of the most kind of, powerful and effective movers for the success I’ve seen at my school.
JAISAL NOOR: When you talk about neighborhood schools, that’s around the country, that’s the role they serve: they’re anchors for the community and they allow people to get involved, and you see generations of parents and…
JOB GROTSKY: We do.
JAISAL NOOR: Students start coming through the same…
MATT HORNBECK: I was just going to say that -– and this is somewhat self-serving because we’re three principals –- but if communities can organize to have a seat at the table when the principal is being selected, having a principal that is connected in a search process or in some way to the community, and some buy-in on both sides, really is a good recipe for success.
And so, I would urge anyone not just to go in and take a look at your school but to contact the Board of Education to be a part of the next principal search at the school near you, because the principal really can make a huge difference in the instructional programming, the safety of the school, the physical plant. Everything can be really quite improved if there’s the right person at the helm at a school.
JAISAL NOOR: Right.
JOB GROTSKY: I’ve been fortunate to be on the front end of that, so in the four years I’ve been there, the community and I work really closely together. It’s been amazing, because we talk about the community school, the school should be the hub of the community. If the school that you send your students to in your neighborhood is a great school, your property values will go up.
I mean, that’s what we talk about a lot with the community, because even if, again, like Principal Ashley said, even if you don’t have students in the school, if your school in your neighborhood is very successful, then yes, everybody wants to flock to that neighborhood and buy. So, we talk about that a lot.
MATT HORNBECK: We’ve had realtors come in for tours, just so that they can begin to know what we have to offer, so that when families come. You know, a house in the school… house, school… possibly church, but house and school are the things that families want. And you’ve got to have housing stock, places to rent, places to live, grocery stores and schools.
ASHLEY COOK: And I think that when we think about the financial piece that’s going to be needed, as a city, in order to do our part in a city, even when Kirwan comes, so just do our part to be on the same level as other districts that contribute and commit a lot of their tax dollars to their public schools. We are going to have to find a way, both as the city of Baltimore, and Baltimore City public schools, to join together to make all of our schools and our school system marketable.
Because, like Matt said, we have pockets, and pockets of excellence is not enough. So, there’s going to need to be some strong collaboration among our city leadership, as well as the school system’s leadership, to be able to start to close that… those pockets of excellence to scale, so that it does come to our city.
MATT HORNBECK: Our school –- and we were talking about this before the panel convened –- and our school is 40% Latin ex, 40% white and 20% African-American. And families working two jobs to make ends meet, and lawyers and doctors and grandparents raising kids, and different mix of everyone, and Job, you were saying, you know, you have…
JOB GROTSKY: Our school’s about 95% African-American.
MATT HORNBECK: Yeah.
JOB GROTSKY: But we’re in… that’s not representative of my neighborhood.
MATT HORNBECK: And so, having race be part of the discussion, and as a proxy you could also talk about income. But really, we have some segregated… we have a lot of segregated neighborhoods, and I think that there’s an opportunity there to talk about how the integration schools could help with that.
It might be a conversation that involves some of the counties, some of what Senator Ferguson has proposed, in terms of magnet schools that draw from the county and the city. Some of the work in –- is it Hartford, Connecticut, I think, was in the newspaper recently? And that is an interesting model.
JAISAL NOOR: And what about maybe, more short term solutions? We were talking about free pre-K for all students.
MATT HORNBECK: Universal.
JAISAL NOOR: Universal, yeah. That could be a simple demand. How would that impact educational outcomes in your schools?
JOB GROTSKY: We’ve had pre-K at my school -– this is my second year — and there is such a difference with students coming in who are prepared for kindergarten, versus those that have not had the all-day pre-K. You know, in terms of… you know, not just the academics, but the social aspects of basically how do you conduct yourself in a school? A lot of our students come in straight from home daycare to kindergarten. Your first month or so is taken up not on the academics, but on the social aspects of kind of acclimating yourself to a school building.
When you have a full year of that then those students can hit the ground running. We’ve seen a huge increase in -– and I think the data shows from what Dr. Santelises showed -– just the readiness of our students.
JAISAL NOOR: All right. Well, I want to thank you all for joining us. We want to keep this conversation going. So, we ask you to submit your questions and comments to us at Therealnews.com, on Twitter or on Facebook.
You can find us at The Real News. And thank you all for joining us.
GROUP: Thank you.
JAISAL NOOR: And thank you for joining us at The Real News Network.