Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke today retreated from his controversial plan to close schools for a week, deciding instead not to pay all city employees for five scheduled holidays.
Schmoke's decision came after his plan to close schools had come under attack from teachers unhappy with being singled out for furloughs, from state education officials who threatened to sue the city to make it adhere to the state-mandated 180-day school year, and from legislators, who saw the move as a grandstand play by Schmoke.
"I was as serious as a heart attack as far as going through with closing the schools," Schmoke in sisted. "I wasn't playing any games on that issue. . . . But the closing had become a diverting issue."
Schmoke said that the fight over his school-closing plan had made enemies out of traditional allies in the fight for more funding for city schools. For instance, the Baltimore Teachers Union yesterday ran a newspaper ad laying out its case against Schmoke's plan to close schools the week of Feb. 17.
Schmoke also was under pressure from the state school board, which had said it had no plans to grant the city a waiver from state law requiring school systems to have 180-day school years.
"There have been a lot of pressures," Schmoke said during a news conference today. "But what I am trying to do is overcome an issue that was diverting us from the major issue, school funding."
Under his new plan, Schmoke will make up for a reduction in state aid by cutting pay for five holidays for all 26,000 city employees. "We're talking about the mayor, all elected officials, everybody who is employed in city government," Schmoke said.
The only exceptions will be employees who already have had their pay reduced this year by furloughs, Schmoke said. Budget officials said the plan will save the city $8.5 million.
"What we are talking about is shared sacrifice," Schmoke said.
BTU leaders and parents said they were pleased with Schmoke's decision to back off the school closing plan.
"We're not happy that we're losing pay, but we feel like we got most of what we wanted," said Irene B. Dandridge, BTU president. "We wanted the schools open, and they are. And we wanted the furloughs spread over more than the Department of Education, and they are. At least everybody's losing pay, including the mayor."
Regina Franco, a parent and coordinator with the Parents Coalition to Improve City Schools, a group that had protested in front of City Hall against the planned shutdown, also applauded Schmoke's action: "It's great, it's just wonderful. It makes us feel that Schmoke listened to us."
Schmoke said he moved ahead with the budget reduction plan he announced today after it became clear that the General Assembly has no plans to restore money cut by the state during the current budget year. In all, the city has lost some $40.8 million in state aid since November. Making matters worse, Schmoke said, is that the city has been told to brace for another, smaller budget cut in the spring.
Also, the mayor said, things could be worse in the fiscal year that begins in July. "I wish I could say there was some light at the end of this tunnel of fiscal hard times," Schmoke said. "But I don't see it."
As a result, the mayor is delaying negotiations with 10 public employee unions whose contracts expire in June. He also is warning them that there is likely to be no money for pay raises for a second consecutive year.
Schmoke said that he wanted to avoid additional layoffs in the city work force, because "it is terrible out there. Nobody can get work."