More city school layoffs possible

1,200 workers could get pink slips if unions refuse furloughs or pay cuts

Most affected would be teachers

January 14, 2004|By Liz Bowie and Tanika White | Liz Bowie and Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Baltimore school officials are threatening to lay off 1,200 more employees - primarily teachers - next month to deal with a worsening financial crisis if employee unions do not agree to either an eight-day furlough or a 6 percent to 7 percent pay cut through June 30.

School officials also acknowledged that the system, which faces a $58 million deficit, is moving toward insolvency - that it will not be able to make payroll through the end of the school year without some assistance from the state or city government.

Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland outlined the options to the school board last night and the board, in turn, said it supported the school chief's efforts to "right the ship."

"We're running low on cash, actual dollars to pay people," board member Kenneth A. Jones said.

Earlier yesterday, Copeland said that the layoffs, which would amount to more than 10 percent of the work force, would be "educationally devastating" to the city's public school children and that she would prefer to reduce pay. But, if the system cut wages unilaterally - a possibility Copeland would not rule out - the schools would be breaching a contract with teachers and teachers aides that was negotiated last year, and the system could face a court challenge.

Yesterday, union representatives said they will never accept furloughs or pay reductions, especially since the district has laid off about 700 employees since November.

"No. No. No," said Loretta Johnson, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and a leader in the local Baltimore Teachers Union. "The union has given their fair share. In our contracts we got no raises, we gave up our sick leave conversion and we're paying more for our health benefits. They can go look somewhere else."

A showdown may come as soon as Friday, when the unions are expected to get back to Copeland with alternative suggestions to the furloughs and pay cuts.

"If they're threatening layoffs then they need to lay off," said Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of AFSCME Local 44, which represents about 1,300 employees in the school system, including food service, grounds crew and maintenance workers, and bus drivers. He said his union is tired of being threatened with layoffs while school officials try to fix an overspent budget that his union members had nothing to do with.

A year and a half ago, the system had a $21 million deficit, which increased to $58 million by June 30. In addition, the system was on pace to overspend its $893 million budget this year by about $24 million.

When Copeland took over in July following the departure of former CEO Carmen V. Russo, she began curtailing spending, with the most drastic cut being the 700 layoffs affecting temporary and full-time employees. Those layoffs saved only $11.7 million, not enough to end the current year in balance and keep the system's promise to reduce the deficit by about $20 million.

Yesterday, Copeland laid out several steps to be taken in the coming weeks that will save $5 million. Apart from the threatened layoff of the 1,200 workers, she plans to hand out pink slips next week to 97 employees, 50 of them high school teachers and administrators, and the rest from the system's central office on North Avenue. The cuts are coming in the high schools because their enrollment has declined by more than 1,000 students, Copeland said.

The school system is also cutting back on its contracts with outside contractors. For instance, it will reduce maintenance in school buildings and stop paying the College Board to give SATs to high schoolers and provide training to teachers. She will cut Achievement First, a mentoring program for teachers and administrators provided by the Fund for Educational Excellence, which Copeland once headed.

Even after all those measures are taken, school officials said, they will need to save another $16 million this year, and that means further action to reduce the payroll.

Union members say the school system is obsessed with reducing the deficit while ignoring the needs of city school children. "Our kids deserve a fair education," the AFT's Johnson said. "They're not even thinking about that. All they keep talking about is, `Oh, we've got to reduce the deficit.'"

If the system decided not to reduce the deficit this fiscal year, it would not have to lay off employees or cut pay. However, Copeland said yesterday that it was important to reduce the deficit in order to make a convincing case with the state legislature for an increase in funding next fiscal year.

"I feel we have to demonstrate we are doing everything," she said.

That might include a court challenge to Copeland's decision to furlough or cut pay.

"She can only hope that someone who wears a robe will decide she made the right decision," said former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, who has been assisting the district with its crisis.

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