School unions offered options

Copeland asks workers to choose among pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs

1,200 could receive pink slips

Thornton money would allow payback next year if wage decrease is OK'd

January 21, 2004|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Hoping to avoid extensive layoffs, city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland met with union leaders yesterday and said she is offering to pay employees back in 2005 if they take between a 6 percent and 7 percent pay cut through June 30.

The school system has a $58 million deficit that is hampering its ability to operate.

Copeland is seeking $16 million in cuts and has warned that 1,200 workers may be laid off unless unions agree to alternatives.

The school system is hoping the state legislature will approve the Bridge to Excellence Act, which is generally referred to as the Thornton initiative, this year.

The legislation would pump about $40 million more into the city school system's budget beginning in July, allowing paybacks to employees next year.

Most of the five unions representing all but a few hundred of the system's 11,000 employees met with Copeland after criticizing her last week for threatening layoffs if she couldn't get the unions to agree to furloughs or pay cuts. Some union leaders struck a more conciliatory tone yesterday.

"I got the impression that everyone wants to work this out for the best for everybody," said Baltimore Teachers Union President Marietta English, whose members would bear the brunt of layoffs.

English would not detail the talks, but she described the proposal as the union "lending [Copeland] the money until they get Thornton."

The school system believes it would save about $16 million through the pay reductions, but Copeland has acknowledged that she would have to break the contract with the teachers union to do it.

Last week, the unions threatened to take her to court if she tried to reduce pay or make workers take eight days of furloughs.

English said a decision looked likely soon, despite the fact that many of the unions will have to take the issue back to members for approval.

The school board may first have to approve a tentative contract with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 44, according to Glenard S. Middleton Sr., president of the union. The union has been working without a contract. Until it has one, he said, members would not negotiate a pay cut.

Middleton said he favors layoffs rather than pay cuts or furloughs. "They are trying to balance the budget on the backs of the working poor," he said.

Local 44 represents about 1,300 food service, grounds crew, maintenance workers and bus drivers, some of the lowest-paid workers in the system.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, which represents about 550 principals and other school managers, said he has called an emergency meeting with his members tomorrow.

They will review the choices Copeland has presented and select the least of three evils: pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs.

"Basically, the membership is going to have to make that decision. I'm not going to make it for them," Gittings said.

"A reduction in salary could affect [employees] for a lifetime," in terms of retirement benefits, he said.

Gittings said that although his members likely would not be the first to be laid off, he doesn't want to see any jobs lost.

"I don't want to see teachers laid off," he said, because of the impact on children.

Sun staff writer Tanika White contributed to this article.

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