Addressing the largest turnout for a Baltimore school board forum in recent years, top school officials assured employees last night that there will be no more layoffs or furloughs in their ranks this year.
"There are no more furloughs, except for the original idea, which is senior staff only," said board Vice Chairman C. William Struever, to raucous cheering from the standing-room audience that had gathered to express their views about proposed cuts to the school's overspent budget. "The senior staff which you see sitting at the table today, they will be taking furloughs."
About 30 top staff members will be furloughed for four to five days, said the system's Chief Operating Officer Mark Smolarz, at a savings of about $100,000.
That symbolic gesture, however, will barely put a dent in what was projected to be a $31 million deficit by the end of the year.
To balance the system's budget, schools chief Carmen V. Russo had previously recommended that the system's 12,000 employees be furloughed, most from two to four days, for a savings of about $6.8 million.
If union representatives rejected the idea of furloughs - which they did - Russo said the system would have to lay off about 250 workers in March.
But last night, as hundreds of union workers picketed outside in the cold, and scores of teachers and parents crammed the hallways, balconies and main boardroom of the city school district's North Avenue headquarters, Russo and board members backed down from both ideas.
"We don't want to hurt the classrooms," Russo said after the emotional meeting. "And from a practical perspective ... it just didn't make any sense."
To prevent the budget-balancing from affecting students, the system also will ease a freeze on classroom spending that has been in effect for months.
Without the cost savings in personnel - the biggest chunk of the school system's budget - the district will more than likely end this year with a $28 million cumulative deficit, Smolarz said.
But Russo said that she hopes to bring that under control by the end of the next fiscal year.
"We heard you," Struever said. "We feel with our hearts the comments that we've gotten back so far. We know this has caused you a lot of pain and uncertainty, and for that pain and uncertainty, you have the apologies of those before you. This is not something that we'd ever want to be a part of again."
Despite the officials' promises, speaker after speaker last night expressed anger with the school system's leaders - who they say overspent the budget and then thought it a good idea to balance it on their backs.
Belinda Clarke, a parent and a custodian at Thomas Johnson Elementary, gave an emotional account of the dedication she applies to her job every day, including waking before 5 a.m. and traveling in inclement weather to work, even when schools are closed.
"You talk about how to get the money to pay so our children don't get left behind, but you're leaving some of their parents behind," she said. "So when you talk about furloughing people - maybe not this year, maybe not next year - think of me."