Furloughs set for workers in city schools

Plan for 12,000 employees would shave $6.8 million from $31 million deficit

`This is very, very serious'

Restructuring contracts, borrowing $25 million also aim to cut shortfall

January 15, 2003|By Liz Bowie and Tanika White | Liz Bowie and Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Baltimore's school board voted yesterday to furlough the system's 12,000 employees, most from two to four days, as part of a sweeping package to balance its budget. Without the belt-tightening, the school district will finish the current fiscal year with a $31 million deficit.

The furloughs, which would save $6.8 million, must be approved by unions representing school employees. Without the furloughs, schools chief Carmen V. Russo said, the system will have to lay off about 250 workers in March.

Other cost-saving items approved by the school board include renegotiating or restructuring consulting agreements and contracts with vendors, and improving business practices.

The board also voted to borrow $25 million -- $15 million of which will pay for equipment purchases and a computer software program this year. The borrowing will allow the board to balance this year's budget, but the debt service will have to be paid over the next several years.

A total of 268 employees have been laid off, and spending for many items and services has been curtailed.

"We know this is very, very serious," Russo said. "We know where the deficit occurred. We have a plan. But all these kinds of plans are very difficult and very painful."

Union leaders expressed concern about some of the administrators' suggestions.

"If they try to impose a furlough without some real negotiations, we are going to be in court," said Baltimore Teachers Union Vice President Brian Dale.

Last night, Russo and Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz presented the board with their recommendations to handle both the district's immediate fiscal crisis and the longer-range problem of the 2003-2004 budget.

Some administration suggestions would affect classrooms by increasing average class size in some grades and trimming the system's summer school program.

Russo and Smolarz warned that without furloughs, the district will lay off employees. Those layoffs could include about 50 academic coaches, who are represented by the teachers union, and central office staff.

Under Russo's plan, all school system employees would be furloughed for two days, while employees who earn more than $60,000 a year would be off for three days.

Directors and officers would be furloughed for a total of four days, and four top administrators -- Russo, Smolarz, Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones and Chief Technology Officer Joseph Kirkman -- would lose five days' pay.

The furloughs -- which would take place on professional development days, holidays or the spring break -- would not interfere with student class time.

School board members implored union leaders to consider the cost-saving option.

Board member J. Tyson Tildon said that some employees -- themselves union members -- have volunteered to be furloughed for at least one day to help eliminate the deficit.

"I would ask union leadership to understand that we have heard them as well," Tildon said.

Not everyone in the audience agreed.

"We are held accountable for everything we do," said L'Tanya L. Ervin, a first-grade teacher at Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School. "Don't take our check. Take the check of those who are accountable."

Administrators say that renegotiating and restructuring contracts and consulting agreements will save about $1.5 million. Improving business practices is expected to save another $200,000.

Looking ahead to next year, Russo is recommending to the board that it increase average class size in sixth grade and above.

Middle school average class size would increase from 27 to 28. High school class size would rise from 28 to 30.

Russo also is recommending a series of changes to save money in summer school.

She proposes reducing the summer school session from five weeks to four and lowering summer teachers' hourly pay from $36 to $30 an hour. Students would be required to pay a small fee to attend summer classes. High-schoolers would be charged $75 per course, while all other students would have to pay $25 for a month of classes.

Officials backed away last night from a proposal to change the four-period "block schedule" back to a six-period day.

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