School workers offered jobs back Baltimore County system reverses on facilities layoffs

June 29, 1996|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County school system, working its way out of a bureaucratic mess, has offered jobs back to more than half of its facilities department employees who were slated for layoffs yesterday -- a move some view as an admission that former managers made a big mistake in draining the staff of key technicians.

New facilities director Gene L. Neff said his department will retain 10 or 11 workers among the 20 who had been scheduled for layoffs or forced retirements.

People were chosen to stay on the basis of skills in roofing, drafting, air and water testing and other technical fields, enabling the school system to avoid costly contracts with private companies, Neff said.

"I think they realized there was a major screw-up," said Larry Minton, a roofing specialist whose job was saved at the last minute. "It's been a nightmare on us and our families. Somebody up there was watching over us."

For several weeks, Neff has been reviewing the situation, making decisions on whom to keep -- with some employees learning only hours before yesterday afternoon's deadline on the last working day of the fiscal year that they still had jobs.

The about-face came after recent disclosures of mismanagement and procurement violations in the facilities department, reviews by county auditors and the FBI, and reports that the draining of technical proficiency by the layoffs would force the school board to award expensive contracts to outside companies.

Since the problems surfaced, former facilities director Faith Hermann has been transferred, acting deputy superintendent Robert Chapman has retired and other managers have been dismissed or left.

The positions targeted for layoffs were chosen by Hermann early this year. Chapman approved them, after Superintendent Anthony G. Marchione pledged to reduce 34 administrative jobs system-wide in a cost-cutting move.

Neither Hermann nor Chapman returned calls seeking comment yesterday.

At least 10 of the workers accepted the offer to stay, and an 11th who was added to the list yesterday could not be reached by Neff to determine whether he would remain or opt for a retirement incentive offer, the director said.

The department will now be able to use employees to serve as project managers on construction sites, to design handicap-accessible projects, to design and inspect roofs and to perform environmental testing, using a mixture of outside contracting and in-house work.

The original layoff plan would have eliminated the roofing department, requiring all design and inspection to be done by outside consultants at a cost of $10,000 per design and specification and roughly $375 a day for inspection and management, according to school system officials. Recent contracts have ranged from $32,000 to $75,000 per school.

The school system's own roofing specialists, by comparison, earn roughly $35,000 a year.

The department is also retaining Reginald Ringgold, the environmental tester who has discovered air-quality problems at many schools -- including Deer Park Elementary, which was closed in March at the insistence of parents who complained about children's illnesses.

Ringgold, who sounded an early warning on the school's faulty ** ventilation system installed during a $2.2 million renovation in 1994, was transferred out of testing a year ago. He will take up his old duties of testing air and water, and looking for lead, radon and asbestos.

For some employees, the offer to stay came too late.

Nick Myers, 54, a field inspector who has worked in the school system 22 years, said he had already made plans to retire and would lose $600 a year if he accepted a job back. Most of the employees are being kept at a lower job classification, in some cases resulting in a small decrease in earnings.

"At the 11th hour they offer you something," Myers said. "If I'd had the time to think about it, maybe I'd have made another choice. But I didn't have time to think about it. I had five months to think about what they did to me for all these years of service.

"Because Ms. Hermann didn't like the color of my eyes or the way I comb my hair, I lost my job. It was personality and had nothing to do with ability."

The decision to eliminate the jobs -- listed as 18 positions on an earlier roster -- came months ago, and the last-minute push to save many of them provided high drama for the employees, and for Neff.

Until yesterday, Ringgold was making plans to move to Houston. Last week, colleagues canceled a farewell luncheon for him because a move was under way to keep him. Salary negotiations continued into yesterday afternoon. "It's a relief to have this over," he said.

Neff, the former county public works director who came out of retirement to take on the school system job last month, said he would like to have kept more people, but added: "I'm encouraged by what we were able to do."

Pub Date: 6/29/96

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