Mervo in turmoil as teachers may be transferred

November 04, 2003|By Michael Olesker

IN A second-floor hallway at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, the banter between teachers has a caustic, brittle, battle-fatigued edge, the sound of combat soldiers who have just discovered their biggest worry is getting blindsided by their own generals.

"How 'bout morale?" one of them says the other morning, in a brief break between classes.

"Morale?" says Tom Szarek, who teaches cabinet making. "We had better morale in Vietnam -- and they were shooting at us there."

"Morale?" says Gloria Savadow, a guidance counselor. "It's terrible. And it's affecting the kids."

"Everybody's on pins and needles," says Ron Chambers, who teaches welding. "The first thing my kids asked me this morning was, `Mr. Chambers, are we next?'"

Everybody hopes not -- and everybody waits for word, sometime today, on plans for three veteran, specialized Mervo teachers and about a hundred of their students whose lives (and livelihoods) may be disrupted two months into the school year.

As the thinkers on North Avenue wrestle with the city schools' budget troubles -- 300 surplus teachers hired over the summer, when officials thought there would be thousands more students enrolled than there are -- they thrash about, looking for mathematical answers and trying not to forget the human beings attached to the numbers.

At Mervo, much of the anxiety started about 10 days ago, when the three veteran teachers received word -- two of them, in letters from Human Resources Officer Shelia Dudley, and one, directly from school Principal Irby Miller -- that they were being "reassigned."

Consider their backgrounds.

Tom Sordello, a Mervo graduate, has taught there for 25 years. "I feel like I'm being kicked to the curb like an old boot," he says. "This is how they repay years of loyalty? This is how they treat kids?"

Tom Tillman, who also graduated from Mervo, has taught there for 31 years. "When I got that letter," he says, "it just blew me away."

John Kirkpatrick has taught there for 27 years. "It's like a cannonball in the stomach," he says. "I got that letter and started shaking all over."

Sordello teaches brick laying. Tillman teaches automobile electronics. Kirkpatrick teaches auto chassis.

From across Baltimore, youngsters bypass schools closer to their homes and attend Mervo specifically because the school offers such courses. These are kids who do not anticipate attending college. They intend careers in building homes, repairing cars. They know that Mervo's teachers are specialists in such areas.

But, under tentative plans, the three teachers notified of possible transfers would be given new assignments. According to the letter Tillman received, he would be transferred next week to Thurgood Marshall High -- to teach special-education students.

"I have no background in special ed," Tillman says. "Here are kids with special needs, and they want to bring in somebody who has no background doing it? When I called human resources, they said they didn't have any other place to put me. They said they'd train me. Two months into the school year? And if I didn't want to do it, they said I can be terminated."

Also, under tentative plans, those students who could no longer get their courses at Mervo might be bused to other schools for one course a day, and then bused back.

"As an educator, I don't like it," Principal Miller said last week. "I told [school officials] this is definitely not good for the kids. And I've been advocating for these gentlemen."

He gestured toward the three vulnerable teachers, who sat in Miller's office the other morning. They were joined by Roosevelt Cooper Jr., whose son, Roosevelt III, is a student affected by the proposed transfers.

"This is outrageous," Cooper said. "They're giving us a few days to make a life decision. My son's very upset. He sees his whole future changing. Two months into the school year, they're doing this? You can't tell me this dropped out of the sky last week, and they never thought to give us notice ahead of time."

At his principal's desk, Miller nodded his head. "It's disrupting my kids and my school," he said. "You have to understand, it's not me doing it, it's the system. What you're going through, I'm going through, also."

Miller said he only knew what Dudley, the human relations officer, had told him regarding the moves. Dudley did not return phone calls to her office over two days.

Yesterday afternoon, Chief Academic Officer Cassandra Jones said, "This is a period for adjustments. If we have fewer students than projected, then we have to adjust the teaching staff. If [Mervo] is under-enrolled, then you have to adjust. It's not a cut-and-dry answer. But we should know something" by today.

Two months into the school year, it's a little late to be scrambling for such answers. And it's damnably unfair to those teachers and students who may have to pay the price for North Avenue confusion.

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