On a smoke break outside Baltimore school headquarters, system employees huddled near each other yesterday on North Avenue, talking in hushed voices about the one thing on all their minds - the layoff letters, perhaps hundreds of them, that are scheduled to go out today, two days before Thanksgiving.
"People have been sick to their stomachs ever since day one of this [layoffs] business," said a school system employee who has worked in the district's information technology department for 20 years. "I've seen a lot of things, but nothing like this."
Fearful of doing anything that might put them in the line of fire, employees working at the district's headquarters - who said they were afraid to give their names for this article - cut short their lunch and smoke breaks to hurry back to their desks and await what one employee called "the Grim Reaper."
"Just having to sit there and wait 24 hours to find out whether you're going to have a job is very depressing," she said.
The wait ends today.
School system Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland has said that administrators will begin personally handing notices this morning to those being laid off, along with information packets telling them how to maintain their health benefits and where to go for employment counseling.
Copeland and other school officials have said that if hundreds of district workers aren't quickly laid off, the system - which has run up a $52 million deficit - is likely to be bankrupt by the end of the school year.
The majority of the layoffs are expected to come from the staff at the system's central office, which could be reduced by up to 50 percent, officials said. Employees who are handed pink slips today will be out of their jobs Jan. 1.
At the system's headquarters, many described the mood as "somber" or "sad." One worker said he was "numb."
"It's scary. I have two kids about to go to college," said the longtime information technology worker. "I'm a good employee. People don't stay here for 20 years if they're not good employees."
Copeland declined to comment yesterday, but system spokeswoman Edie House said the CEO had gathered workers from each floor of the district's central office yesterday morning and told them she was grateful for their service to the city.
Copeland told the staff, "This is not about job performance. This is about a fiscal issue," House said.
House said Copeland has asked superintendents in surrounding counties to give city school employees a first look when openings become available.
The district's nine school board members were briefed yesterday morning about the layoffs, and senior officials were given the information packets that will be handed out today, the spokeswoman said.
Many central office workers wondered yesterday which of their friends might be leaving. Many said short prayers and said they are relying on faith to get them through the tense workdays.
Top school officials have kept secret the list of those to be laid off, in part, sources said, to avoid internal lobbying to preserve specific jobs.
Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of AFSCME Local 44, said yesterday that his union has not been told who will be affected by the cuts. Middleton said he has heard that 35 union members might lose their jobs. The union represents more than 1,300 custodians, food-service, repair-shop and grounds-crew workers, bus drivers and engineers.
"But even 35 is too many," Middleton said. "We feel that it should not be happening at all."
Jimmy Gittings, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, said yesterday that he had not been told how many of his members would be laid off.
Gittings' union represents about 610 workers. More than half are based in schools, and the rest work in the North Avenue headquarters or in offices around the city.
Those employees work at the discretion of the chief executive officer, Gittings said, so anyone can be laid off, but Gittings said he was told yesterday during discussions with top staff members that officials would honor seniority.
"I have been in the system 32 years, and I have never seen a disaster of this magnitude," Gittings said.
Last night, the City Council called for an independent review of the school system's finances. The council adopted a resolution asking that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the General Assembly hire an auditor who would determine why the system is in financial distress and whether future shortfalls are likely.
"I think people deserve to know how we got there," said Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr., lead sponsor of the bill. "Especially the ones who are getting a pink slip" today.
Some workers received their pink slips a day early.
James Brown, a computer teacher under a temporary contract at Harlem Park Elementary School, said he was told yesterday that his last day on the job will be Dec. 5. Brown is one of more than 200 temporary workers who were laid off almost a year ago in one of the system's first attempts to fix its overspent budget.
He was rehired this fall, he said, because his services as computer teacher, mentor and after-school karate instructor were sorely needed.
"I'm mad as hell," Brown said yesterday. "Here we go again."
Temporary employees will be laid off across the system, school officials said.
"This is ridiculous," Brown said, adding that parents, business leaders and community members should demand that the school system receive more funding. "It's time for the citizens of this city to stand up and stop being quiet. We need to stand up and do the right thing for these children."
Sun staff writer Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.