Pressed to come up with $8.9 million in budget cuts to offset reduced state aid, Baltimore school officials proposed last night a variety of options that could hit the pocketbooks of teachers and students alike.
The menu -- aimed at keeping teachers in the classroom and preserving classroom instruction -- included reducing by three days the number of non-school days for which teachers get paid, deferring cash payments to employees for unused sick leave, laying off 30 to 45 non-instructional employees and requiring students to pay 20 cents to take a Mass Transit Administration bus to school, according to a plan presented to the school board.
The idea of making city school kids pay for transportation to schools, however, was dismissed by several members of the school board last night as unfair and politically unpopular. If Baltimore schoolchildren were required to pay bus fares, they would be the only students in the state who would have to pay for their transportation to school.
"I am troubled that our children will have to make a sacrifice when they can't afford it," said school board President Joseph Lee Smith.
Two items that would generate the most savings -- the reduction in pay for non-school days and deferral of cash payments in lieu of unused sick leave -- must be negotiated and approved by the school employee unions. Together the two items would save $6.1 million.
One bit of good news last night: Earlier this month, school officials feared that the state budget cuts would eliminate prekindergarten programs for 1,200 city children. But now it appears that, at worst, only 240 children would be affected, school officials said.
The school board will discuss the proposed cuts at its regularly scheduled meeting tonight.
The board has until Monday to tell Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke where it wants to cut.
Though school staff have so far identified $7 million of the necessary cuts without touching the classroom, Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said he could not promise that classrooms will remain unaffected in this latest round of budget battles.
There are some "drastic" measures, such as closing schools for two or three days, that would bring significant savings but, "I don't even want to think about them," he said.
At a breakfast meeting with reporters earlier yesterday, Dr. Amprey said he plans to overhaul the school system's central bureaucracy by January as part of cutbacks -- instead of waiting to make major changes next spring and summer, as originally planned.
The school system's chief of educational accountability, Denise Borders, will be looking at every job in central administration on -- North Avenue to decide which are necessary and which need to be eliminated, the superintendent said.
Dr. Amprey hopes to hire consultants to help with the reorganization -- something his predecessor, Richard C. Hunter, did as well. Though Dr. Hunter "cleaned house," Dr. Amprey said: "As it's been described to me, there hasn't been a real organized reorganization, an analysis of positions -- there's been more a decision to downsize or cut back."
"What we're talking about makes the bureaucracy more efficient and effective. And if that means moving central staff to schools, that's what we'll do. If that means eliminating whole offices because their responsibilities are being duplicated -- and frankly I see some of that -- that's what we'll do."
Dr. Amprey said that he discussed his reorganization plans with his top aides Monday. "I basically said all bets are off. Don't feel too comfortable where you are," he said. If the school system doesn't succeed in making itself more efficient and responsive -- something it's been long criticized for failing to accomplish -- others will step into the fray, the superintendent warned.
As an example, he cited a City Council decision last summer to freeze $1.6 million in the school budget. Council members reversed the decision earlier this month, but it was a move born out of "pure frustration" with the school system, he said.