North Avenue's arithmetic Costly raise: Salary increase means little when you might not have a job.

February 02, 1996

LESS THAN SIX MONTHS ago, Baltimore teachers were celebrating news of a 5 percent pay raise. Today they're afraid layoffs may be needed to help the school system weather a mammoth budget shortfall. It's not just teachers who are wondering how the city traveled 180 degrees in such a short period of time.

Last August, contract negotiators for the city doubled the amount the school system had budgeted for teacher raises. It's obvious now that was unwise. Teachers received a 4 percent raise in 1994. That doesn't mean they didn't deserve another increase. Good salaries help attract competent teachers who want to work in a challenging urban environment. But granting a pay hike, then raising the spectre of layoffs won't encourage anyone to teach in Baltimore.

The budget shortfall includes $7 million in court-ordered improvements to special education services and $5.9 million withheld by the state to punish the school system for poor management. The city thought it would gain $10 million by negotiating a new contract with Education Alternatives Inc., but it will be lucky to save $3 million by kicking EAI out.

Add it all up and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke can't cover the $14 million raise to teachers. Superintendent Walter G. Amprey told teachers he might have to dock them a day's pay for 10 pay periods to help make ends meet. But Mr. Schmoke, amid protests by the teachers' union, has overruled his superintendent.

One wonders why the mayor and Dr. Amprey can't agree beforehand on what a common position. They also differed on the potential impact of the pay raise when it was granted. Dr. Amprey initially said there wasn't enough money. But when Mr. Schmoke insisted during his re-election bid that the money could be found, the superintendent shut up.

The mayor earlier promised that the financial crisis wouldn't impact classrooms. It's true the 65 layoffs so far were mostly in administration. But the schools' chief financial officer says more layoffs are imminent. Even if no teachers are involved, what happens in their classes has already been affected by the low morale created by this fiscal uncertainty. Baltimore school children suffer enough without having teachers whose main focus is on the arithmetic taking place at North Avenue and City Hall.

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