Schools fill with tears, questions as layoffs hit

Many not only losing pay, but benefits for family

November 27, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Don Walls met his wife of 46 years when they were seniors in high school and both worked at the majestic Stanley Theater that once stood on Howard Street. He was a white-gloved usher in a double-breasted jacket. Bernadette was a candy girl.

Walls couldn't have known then that one day he would have to dedicate so much time, energy and money to care for the love of his life. The candy girl now must use a wheelchair and takes 13 medications a day for ailments that include diabetes and heart problems.

But he hasn't begrudged a minute of it. Because he loves her. And because the vows they took bonded them for life.

"I'm not an abandoner," Walls, 67, said yesterday.

Soon, though, caring for his wife will be much harder for Walls - who found out Tuesday that his $66,000-a-year job as a functional analyst for the Baltimore school system will end on Jan. 1.

Walls' house in Northeast Baltimore is paid for, and he has some savings, he said, so day-to-day living won't be too much of a worry for now.

But along with his job, Walls also lost sorely needed medical benefits for himself and his wife - the reduced price doctor's visits and prescription drugs that have been keeping his wife alive.

One of her medications costs $240 every month, of which Walls now only pays $10, with insurance.

"I'm thinking, `Gee, what am I going to do?'" Walls said yesterday.

Walls is one of the more than 700 school system employees who were laid off this week in an emergency attempt to fix a severely overspent budget. All Tuesday, full-time and temporary employees were called into offices and handed pink slips, causing tears and anguish throughout the system's central office headquarters at 200 E. North Ave. and elsewhere.

Walls was one of the first to get word that he was being let go, from a kind supervisor who attached his notice with job listings she had pulled from the Internet.

Walls said he felt little sadness for himself.

Before working for the public schools, Walls had a long career as a local journalist. He was the long-time editor of The Daily Record, a local business and legal affairs newspaper. His voice was also recognizable on WBAL radio as a film critic from 1971 to 1999.

As a result, Walls is secure with a pension and Social Security payments, and is determined just to think of his layoff as a "change of life," like so many others he has lived through.

He will retire, he said, and find free-lance work.

But he is worried about colleagues in his Information Technology department, some who are single mothers, or who count on every dime in every bi-weekly check to make ends meet.

One co-worker, once she heard she was being let go, "she just came out of the office and just broke down and started crying," Walls said. "Another woman, she really bellowed."

And he also worries about how he will pay for the "fringe" items that his school system salary had provided. For instance, he has been paying the parochial school tuition for his grandson in Allentown, Pa. And he hired a woman to come in three hours each day to care for his wife and help with housework.

"I'll have to let her go," Walls said.

But he's also worried about the viability of the city school system, which has now cut deeply into its ranks of central staffers, and - although officials said they would try not to - has slashed the jobs of many part-time and uncertified classroom workers in schools.

"I don't know how they're going to do it," he said.

In schools across the city, it seems much of the work will have to be done now by the most dedicated of volunteers.

Elsie Dewberry said she will continue to help teaching third-graders to read at William Paca Elementary School, just as she has been doing for the past four years - even though the school system sent notice that her official last day is Dec. 5.

"There's a need there," said Dewberry, 66, a retired city schoolteacher who had earned $31 an hour, three days a week at the school. "And they're our children."

And Jeffrey Hogan, 30, had been teaching first-grade full time at Govans Elementary School, under a New York teaching certificate that needed updating.

The test scores he needed to keep his certificate current will arrive in the mail Dec. 12, Hogan said, but the school system already laid him off - and 54 others like him, to make room for extra teachers hired over the summer when this year's enrollment was miscalculated by nearly 3,000 students.

But Hogan said he will go to Govans every day and teach those first-graders to read short words and add small numbers.

Paycheck or not.

"I love my children. They are amazing," Hogan said. "I am not ready to let these children go until I am satisfied that the person who takes my place will do a good job."

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