710 city school employees get notice of Jan. 1 layoffs

More than 300 temps, many longtime workers at HQ face unemployment

November 26, 2003|By Liz Bowie and Tanika White | Liz Bowie and Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials handed pink slips to 710 full-time and temporary employees yesterday, cutting deeply into the ranks of highly paid and longtime central office staff, to avoid financial disaster.

In announcing the layoffs, Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland warned that another, smaller round of staff reductions is likely to come by late January or early February after the system calculates what it owes in unpaid bills.

Carrying a $52 million deficit amassed over several years of overspending, the system faced bankruptcy if it did not cut its payroll $24 million by year's end. By May or June, officials said, the system would no longer be able to pay its employees.

"It is imperative that we stop the system's financial bleeding," Copeland said, appearing shaken and tired at a news conference. For a moment the new CEO, who had personally laid off members of her own staff earlier in the day, stopped to compose herself.

"I'm very sorry. This has been a very difficult day, and I need to catch my breath for a moment," she said.

Employees struggled with their emotions. They cried, stood in knots in hallways, walked out of the central office building or resolutely turned back to their jobs after being told their last day will be Jan. 1.

Albert L. Harris Jr., who handled real estate matters in the school system's facilities department, said his entire facilities and school planning division was eliminated yesterday. Six people - who helped make enrollment projections, scout out new buildings and plan for building usage - were deemed "unnecessary," he said.

"It's a sad day in there," Harris said, nodding toward the system's headquarters, at 200 E. North Ave.

Of the 710 laid-off employees, 329 were temporary workers in schools and administrative offices. Officials could not say how many of the temporary employees, who will lose their jobs in early December, work in schools.

The next-hardest-hit group included central office staff members, most of whom work at the North Avenue headquarters. Of the 786 people in all levels of administration, 298 full-time staff workers lost their jobs. And 13 surplus assistant principals and 55 teachers whose professional certificates have lapsed were laid off.

Officials also laid off 15 teachers who had retired but were rehired under a state program intended to ease teacher shortages by keeping experienced teachers in classrooms.

Those teachers, Copeland said, will be replaced by 15 younger, less well-paid, surplus teachers who were hired when the system believed its enrollment would grow. Instead, enrollment shrank by 3,000.

The average salary of the laid-off full-time workers is $60,000, Copeland said.

"We are not talking about lower-paid people," she said.

Yesterday's action will reduce the system's annual payroll by at least $14 million - still $10 million short of the target administrators had hoped to meet.

But Copeland said other savings would be realized by eliminating 100 vacant positions. And the system will reduce the number of contract workers and consultants next month.

Still unknown is exactly how much money the system owes in unpaid bills. Copeland called for all staff across the system to turn in invoices last week. She said those bills amount to $13 million, some of which might be unanticipated expenditures.

While the layoffs were painful, many officials said they were necessary.

"We have no choice," Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday. "If we don't do this and we don't do it now, then checks are going to be bouncing all over the school system, including checks to our teachers, who are doing such a good job."

School board Vice Chairman Sam Stringfield commended Copeland for insisting that the layoffs be done face-to-face and with more than 30 days' notice.

"I really salute Bonnie for the humane way she's trying to do this," Stringfield said. "Our hearts go out to all the families. ... This is an awful day."

Jimmy Gittings, president of the Public School Administration and Supervisors Association, said administrators at the central office were crying and depressed yesterday.

"I don't blame Bonnie Copeland for this. She inherited this," Gittings siad. "But it's devastating to see this number of people lose positions."

Gittings said he was concerned that contract terms were not honored during this round of layoffs.

"I was promised that seniority would be used, and unfortunately I don't think seniority was used," he said.

Other union leaders, including Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of AFSCME Local 44, echoed Gittings' concerns.

"They have clearly violated our contract by not looking at bumping rights and seniority," he said. "The union is supposed to be privy to all information before the employee receives it, and that did not happen."

Middleton said three unions - his own, the Baltimore Teachers Union and the City Union of Baltimore - will meet with lawyers today to determine whether legal action can be taken against the school system.

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