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Cleveland school board approves 2024 budget cut plan to send to state

CMSD CEO Warren Morgan, center, speaks during the Feb. 27 meeting where CMSD's Board of Education approved a budget reduction plan to send to the state.
Conor Morris
Ideastream Public Media
CMSD CEO Warren Morgan, center, speaks during the Feb. 27, 2024 meeting where CMSD's Board of Education approved a budget reduction plan to send to the state.

A plan calling for more than $130 million in cuts was approved by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District Board of Education Tuesday which focuses on cutting multiple pandemic-relief funded programs that, officials say, tries to prevent cuts from reaching the doors of classrooms.

The plan will be sent to the Ohio Department of Education and Workforce, meant to help the district contend with a growing deficit the district has forecast for some time. According to its latest five-year forecast, the district will have a negative cash balance at the end of the next fiscal year. Despite the plan, CMSD CEO Warren Morgan said during the meeting Tuesday night that the district will still need to create its actual budget for the next fiscal year in the coming months, which will lay down the cuts that will be put into place.

As of Tuesday, the plan calls for the following:

  • Closing out the district's support for 93 after-school programs provided by non-CMSD partners, a program that was started with pandemic relief funding to help catch students up. The cuts will not affect programs directly run by CMSD like sports and music.
  • Cutting back on summer programming. The district had significantly boosted its summer learning program through federal pandemic relief. Morgan has said the district will still provide more funding for that program than it had prior to the pandemic; about $6.6 million a year, compared to about $15 million in 2023. This will reduce the number of seats but Morgan said the district will double the amount of instructional time provided during the program.
  • Two phases of cuts at CMSD's central office. It will start with 25 positions, which could involve cutting employees and open positions, saving about $5 million. A larger "second phase" will mean another $40 million in cuts to the district administration down the road.
  • Cutting some technology support for students, including eliminating providing WiFi hotspots to families and some devices for younger students. The district had been providing one device per each student in recent years using pandemic relief.
  • Placing all schools on the same calendar and removing most extended-year arrangements for schools.
  • Removing a 2% increase per year for individual schools' budgets but still keeping them flat over the next two years.

Morgan noted that for now, the only job cuts called for in the plan are at the central office level. He said the $40 million cuts down the road will mean far more than 25 people in the district's central administration will likely be losing their jobs.
"Those are people who have been working on our system for a while, and there is an impact there. And so I just want to name that, because of course, we are protected school schools are very important," he said. "Our central office is important too, and we are making that sacrifice."

Community members and staff expressed concerns during the public comment period of the meeting. Shari Obrenski, president of the Cleveland Teachers Union, said she was “frustrated and perplexed” with how the district is budgeting, arguing the district administration “manufactured a budgeting crisis.” She said the district, like all schools across the country, knew its $465 million pandemic relief funding would end. She said it should have created a budget forecast last year that did not trigger a need for a budget reduction plan to be presented to the state, one that considered the end of pandemic relief-funded programs and provided more warning for everyone involved.

She spoke longer than the three minutes allotted under board policy, leading board chair Sara Elaqad to prompt her multiple times to end her comments. She continued despite Elaqad banging the gavel to try to restore order.

"The questions that I'm asking this board are questions that you all should have asked the CEO a long time ago," Obrenski said. "I am asking these questions publicly so that they are on the record.

Afterward, Elaqad addressed Obrenski's comments.

"You took at least three times the amount of time that we typically give everybody else. Doctor Morgan will be replying to many of these questions in the finance portion of the meeting," she said. "In future we will, as we say in our policies, may restrict the... privilege to come before our meetings for those who do not abide by our policies."

Later, Morgan responded to some of Obrenski's concerns, noting the district did present its five-year forecast to the Cleveland Teachers Union in November, leaving time for Obrenski to raise concerns then. He also noted that the school district has been in a state of "fiscal watch" before, in 2019, the year before a levy was approved.

"We've been through it before, we can do it again," he said.

Yolanda James, a CMSD teacher aide, noted that the Cleveland Teachers Union will be negotiating a new contract with the district this year.

"I find it ironic that every time we get ready to face negotiation, the money falls short," she said.

Parents who use the after-school programs facing cuts, along with some providers, were also present, and they expressed concerns during the meeting about the loss of the resource that they had come to rely on. Sarah Moses, the parent of an eighth grader, said the after-school program she used for her daughter provided her peace of mind that her daughter was safe in the two hours after school but before she got off work.

"When my daughter first started going to this program, I was finishing my degree," she said. "I didn't have money for after-school programs that cost out of pocket."

Morgan noted that after-school program providers have previously provided programming without the district's funding; pandemic relief only funded those programs for the last two years. He said the district is trying to work with those providers to help them figure out how they can continue.

Several teachers raised concerns about the impact of removing year-round and extended-year schedules will have, with one noting it will mean a pay cut for some teachers.

Morgan has previously said schools with extended calendars receive disproportionately more resources than other schools, while academic performance varies. He said during Tuesday's meeting that at most of those schools, it only adds about three days of class time; the other days are used for professional development for staff. Board Vice Chair Leah Hudnall said she'd like to see the district outline which schools those are, what their Ohio state report card scores are and if they have selective criteria for admission.

"I want to make sure that we all understand as a community, a city that we have choice for schools, but that only matters if the parent can get the child there and back safely," she said. "It only matters if they can get through the lottery process to get in. It only matters if they can pass a test to get in. So school choice sounds great, but it's really about access and equity."

Board Member Robert Heard was the lone "no" vote on the resolution. He said he thinks the district needs to keep its "promise" to use funds from a grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott to create opportunities for students and faculty, through the "Get More Opportunities" program started by the previous administration.

"We made a promise to the kids when this money came through that it would be theirs," Heard said. "And until I have a comfort level around the use of those dollars, if not the entire $17 million [left from the $20 million grant], what we plan to do going forward to keep the promise that was made, when those dollars came through, my vote is no."

Morgan said the district would like to find a way to continue the program in some form, but the district can't take the money out of its general fund now; that would only make the deficit worse. He also said the way the district went about providing grants through the Get More Opportunities program raises concerns about equity, with the majority going to just seven schools out of 100 total. He said 23 of the 25 grants given out in one City Council ward last year, representing the Central neighborhood, went to Campus International High School. It's not clear how those decisions were made.

Board Member Robert Briggs reminded people that the board members are volunteers, and do care greatly about the district and its students and staff.

"I think it's really important to remember that Dr. Morgan didn't create this mess," Briggs said. "But he and we as board members have to solve it. We have to fix it. And we, are working very diligently to do that. But I also want to acknowledge that it collectively tears us apart to have to make these cuts, and not pay people what they think they should get paid, what we think they should get paid."

Updated: February 28, 2024 at 12:43 PM EST
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Tuesday's meeting.
Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.