City's layoffs to be painful


Ax: Cuts in the Baltimore school system will be quick, but how it will be done is problematic.

November 19, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

THE ONLY good thing about the forthcoming layoffs in the city school system is that they'll be over quickly. It won't be death by a thousand cuts.

That much has been made clear in the past week, as schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland and former state Sen. Robert R. Neall have made all the requisite stops to prepare Baltimore for the news that will come as early as Tuesday and will devastate the families of as many as 1,000 people.

Yesterday they visited a group of foundations, Marc Steiner's show on WYPR radio and The Sun's editorial board. Today it's a hastily called meeting of the state Board of Education.

Copeland and Neall aren't delivering a soft message. This round of layoffs won't resemble the termination of temporary employees last year, Neall said yesterday.

This one, he told Steiner's audience, will affect a number of highly paid employees because it will focus on North Avenue school headquarters, scheduled to lose as many as half of its roughly 700 employees to help ease a $52 million cumulative deficit.

And the cuts won't be phased in over the school year, more than a third of which has elapsed. Neall, a fiscal expert brought in by Copeland to analyze the system's finances, said he advised Copeland: "Cut as much as you can as deep as you can as quickly as you can - and hope it's enough."

Though Copeland says the goal "is to affect the schools the least," that is, to keep a good instructional program going while trimming noneducational fat, it doesn't seem possible that cuts of the magnitude projected won't be felt in the classrooms.

In part, that's because all teachers and some administrators have "bumping rights" built into their contracts.

If a Baltimore Teachers Union member with 20 years' experience gets laid off, she can bump a classroom teacher with 10 years on the job, and that teacher can bump a five-year colleague across town.

Bumping rights make layoffs extremely difficult in organizations with union contracts. As Neall pointed out yesterday, laying off the 20-year veteran solves the "arithmetic problem," but it doesn't solve the programmatic one.

Another key question: In light of the financial crisis, does the system have the right to reopen a two-year labor contract recently signed with the BTU? "We're looking into that," Copeland said yesterday.

There's been a lot of blame-laying since the layoff announcement last Wednesday. More recrimination will come Tuesday, when the knife is actually wielded.

Neall took what he called "my share of the blame" yesterday. As an influential money man in the General Assembly, Neall said he should have done a better job tracking the millions of dollars appropriated to city schools since the forging of the 1997 city-state partnership.

In fact, Neall said, the partnership may have played an ironic role in creating the financial mess.

People on the outside, he said, assumed that because the state was involved, with key lawmakers and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick keeping watch, North Avenue must have known what revenue was coming in and where it was being spent.

Not so. Up and down the line, from State Circle to West Baltimore Street to North Avenue, people were asleep at the switch. Now other people are going to pay the price.

A tale of portent in St. Louis schools

But believe it or not, it could be worse.

Take St. Louis. Please.

On a recent reporting visit, I found the public schools in turmoil. St. Louis is smaller than Baltimore (40,000 public school students, compared with Baltimore's 92,000), but both cities have lost population and enrollment.

Both struggle with poverty and poorly performing schools. Both school systems are running huge deficits - $90 million in St. Louis, by one estimate.

Here's what happened in St. Louis: A school board majority hired an outside management firm with no experience in education to run the system.

The idea, according to a report in the December American School Board Journal, was to find ways to cut noneducation-related expenses and direct more money to instruction.

Fair enough, but the result has been months of disruption. Local talk-show host Lizz Brown uses her microphone to whip up resentment over the heavy-handedness of the management team.

Even those who support the idea of replacing a traditional superintendent with a turnaround firm told me that the company chosen has done little to consult parents, teachers and others with a legitimate stake in St. Louis schools. Meanwhile, the school board is bitterly divided.

It's a cautionary tale for Baltimore.

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