Quick schools bailout unlikely

City, state officials react coolly on aid for deficit

`We don't have extra money'

Copeland asked unions for pay cut or furloughs

January 15, 2004|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

One day after Baltimore school officials announced they are even more desperate for funds to attack a $58 million deficit, top city and state officials reacted coolly, with no promises of a quick bailout.

Mayor Martin O'Malley, in Annapolis yesterday for the opening of the General Assembly session, said he has no plans to ask the state for any emergency or stopgap aid to avert the layoff of up to 1,200 teachers and school employees.

"We need to get our own house in order," O'Malley said.

The mayor said that schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland's proposals - asking unions to agree to an eight-day furlough or a 6 percent to 7 percent pay cut to deal with the cumulative deficit - are meant to address the schools' financial concerns and should be tried before any "bailout" measures are considered.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick also held out little hope for immediate financial help.

The new threat of layoffs has some parents concerned that the school system will not be able to provide an adequate education for its 90,000 students.

Jessica Stewart, a parent volunteer at Dallas F. Nicholas Sr. Elementary School, said that if cuts are too deep, she might consider transferring her 6-year-old son to another school system.

"I would rather my son stay at this school, but if they cut the teachers, and there's no one here to teach him, I guess I will have to transfer," Stewart said.

Grasmick indicated that it is unlikely that the State Board of Education can come up with any additional revenue to help the city schools

"We don't have extra money we could give them," Grasmick said.

She said the state is withholding about $35 million in federal funds because the federal government considers the city to be out of compliance with the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which require the system to give students in failing schools a choice about where they go to class.

Unlike the city, which has been giving its share of funds to the system early, Grasmick said that state law gives her little flexibility to advance state funds more quickly to help relieve the schools' serious cash-flow problem.

"I obviously want the school system to be successful, but I also think when we look at the contribution of the city compared to the state over time, there is a big disparity," the superintendent said.

The state provides 61 percent of the system's $914 million in funds, while the city gives 23 percent. The rest comes from the federal government and other sources.

Copeland said yesterday that former state Sen. Robert R. Neall, who has been assisting the system with its crisis, has formally asked for financial help from private supporters to help with the school system's immediate cash-flow problems.

Copeland declined to say whom Neall asked for money - or for how much - saying she didn't want to jeopardize talks. But she said the system "got a green light" from at least one private supporter.

School officials have said they will not be able to continue to make payroll through the end of the school year without assistance.

The system has been working with a statewide coalition that plans a rally Jan. 26 in Annapolis in support of full funding for the Bridge to Excellence Act, which is generally referred to as the Thornton initiative.

"The passage of the resolution would bring Baltimore City [schools] over 40 million additional dollars for the 2004-2005 school year," Copeland said. "Such additional funding is critical if the [city school system] is to provide appropriate services for its students."

She said in an interview yesterday that eliminating the deficit - even by extreme measures - is important because of Thornton.

"I think the legislature, as they're considering the full funding of Thornton and then deciding how to dole it out, would be reluctant to give it to Baltimore City without any strings attached if we don't demonstrate that we plan to use this for enhancement of programs and improving the education system rather than making up the deficit," Copeland said. "I don't think they would even allow us to use the money to pay off the deficit."

But Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English said the system should take more time to eliminate the deficit, to save jobs and prevent hurting students educationally.

"This deficit did not happen overnight," she said. "They're not going to fix it in a year. We can pay off this debt in five years. We don't have to do it right now."

English - as well as many parents, teachers and others - said the system has not exhausted the search for financial help.

"There has to be some emergency funds in somebody's coffer," English said.

Some state legislators indicated there might be a chance for assistance.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said that Neall's recommendations will carry weight in the state legislature.

"I intend to work with ... Robert Neall," Miller said. "If he tells me money is needed and there's accountability, then I will work with him and go to [Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.] and ask for some kind of support."

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat, said, "I think the state will respond favorably" to a request for help from city schools, largely because of Neall's involvement.

In the faculty lunch room at Garrett Heights Elementary School, most teachers said they don't want the union to accept furloughs or pay cuts, but instead it should ask for money to help.

Lashell Richardson, a fourth- grade teacher, said she is a single parent with three children and needs every penny in her paychecks.

"I will feel a 6 percent cut," Richardson said. "It disgusts me. [School officials] make a mistake, and I have to pay for it."

Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, Doug Donovan, Michael Dresser, David Nitkin and Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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