Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters on North Avenue. Photo by Eli Pousson/Baltimore Heritage, via Flickr.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises joined 62 other leaders of big-city school systems in calling for more than $200 billion in federal aid in the next relief bill responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter sent to party leadership in both houses of Congress, the Council of Great City Schools, a group representing large districts from Albuquerque to Wichita, said an initial allocation of $13.5 billion from the CARES Act was a “critical lifeline for public education” but more is needed.

“With additional federal funds, America’s public schools will be able to add summer school,
expand the school day after reopening in the fall, retain and stabilize our teaching force, address the needs of our most vulnerable students, narrow the digital divide, and have a fighting chance at salvaging the futures of millions of young people,” the school administrators wrote.

In a separate statement, Santelises said City Schools’ response to the virus, which has included providing more free meals to students and purchasing computers so students can learn at home, has already stretched the system’s budget.

“We are supportive of the Council’s request because it reflects what many school districts are feeling,” she said. “Baltimore City Public Schools knows we have the support of our congressional representatives, and we are hopeful their colleagues respond to the plea of school districts nationwide.”

Roughly 87 percent of the requested aid would be distributed to districts using a formula for Title 1, the federal program that provides funds for school districts with a high percentage of children from low-income families. An additional $12 billion would be targeted for the program.

Another $13 billion would help students with disabilities, and $2 billion would be allocated for emergency infrastructure.

Money from the CARES Act went a long way toward offsetting the costs of free meals and setting up distribution sites at school buildings, efforts that were carried out before there was any relief from the federal government, the administrators wrote.

To date, Baltimore has distributed more than 1.2 million meals and 12,000 grocery boxes, many of which were handed out at schools and recreation centers.

School administrators told lawmakers that thousands of electronic devices have been purchased and distributed, WiFi hot spots are being set up and lesson packets are being sent home with students so classwork can continue remotely.

Baltimore City Public Schools has reportedly purchased 12,000 more Chromebooks and 14,000 power cords. The district has also started loaning out more than 15,000 Chromebooks it already owns. There are about 80,000 students in Baltimore City.

School leaders warned that “dark clouds are forming” as many states and municipalities are facing budget shortfalls due to the pandemic. Revenue in Baltimore City is expected to decline $68.7 million this fiscal year and more than $100 million in fiscal year 2021.

According to the council’s letter, between 40 percent and 50 percent of school district revenues come from local sources that are expected to decline. The administrators warned students will already be entering the next academic year behind schedule, and budget cuts could lead to teacher layoffs and larger classroom sizes.

Administrators wrote that they faced a similarly bleak scenario during the 2008 recession. Congress responded by passing the $100 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and later added an additional $10 billion in 2010 to boost staffing levels.

“Unlike in 2008 and 2009, schools nationwide had to close in mid-March and will likely
stay shuttered through the balance of the school year,” the administrators wrote. “As aggressive as schools have been in providing instruction at a distance, districts continue to need resources to provide electronic learning devices and internet connections to every child.”

Lawmakers are already debating what should be included in the next round of stimulus. The Senate is scheduled to return to Washington, D.C. next week. But the House scrapped plans to return May 4 at the urging Capitol attending physician Brian Monahan.

One week ago, Congress passed a bill adding $484 billion to the Paycheck Protection Program for small businesses. President Trump signed it into law the next day.

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Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore...