Schools chief preparing layoff plan if teachers reject pay cut, furlough

As many as 1,200 jobs could be cut to meet deficit

February 04, 2004|By Liz Bowie and Tanika White | Liz Bowie and Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Concerned that Baltimore teachers may reject a proposal to take a pay cut to avert layoffs, city schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland said yesterday she will begin preparing a plan to eliminate as many as 1,200 jobs to help pay down a $58 million cumulative deficit.

"Regrettably, we are having to turn back to layoffs as the only option we have" to reach the system's financial goals for this fiscal year, Copeland said. She added that she remains "cautiously optimistic" that the teachers will agree to the system's suggestion of a pay cut.

The Baltimore Teachers Union, which represents about 6,000 teachers and teachers aides, is scheduled to vote at 8:30 a.m., Friday at Polytechnic Institute on whether to accept either a 6.8 percent pay cut or an eight-day furlough as an alternative to layoffs. The union vote had been scheduled for yesterday but was postponed because of inclement weather and moved to a date when students are not scheduled to be in school.

Copeland said that after speaking to union leaders yesterday, she became concerned that the teacher union rank-and-file would vote against pay cuts or furloughs.

Teachers union President Marietta English said she would continue negotiations, hoping to come up with other cost-saving ideas besides pay cuts, furloughs or layoffs.

"There are other options you could consider without these drastic measures for teachers," English said she told Copeland. Some of those alternatives include "freezing" several areas of the school system's operations, such as contracts with outside firms and consultants, the opening of new schools and the hiring of new employees, English said.

Copeland could impose an across-the-board pay cut for all employees - including herself - but the teachers union, saying such a unilateral move would breach its contract with the school system, has threatened a court challenge.

The legal wrangling would likely delay any spending cuts and dilute potential savings to the school system, which is on the brink of insolvency.

As a result, Copeland said she has asked her staff to begin planning whom to lay off, beginning with the most recently hired employees and teachers whose certificates have lapsed. She said the majority of the layoffs would come from the teaching ranks. The teachers union is the largest of the five unions representing school employees.

Whatever the outcome of Friday's vote, Copeland said she will ask the school board Tuesday for its approval to take the next step - whether it's pay cuts or layoffs.

If the board votes for layoffs, the first ones will take effect this month. A pay cut would take effect Feb. 13 and last 10 weeks.

Copeland intends to act quickly not only to stem the spending, but because she is concerned about employee morale, which she described as "teetering."

"I think people continue to wonder what is going to happen," she said.

Union leaders think Copeland could spare employees from losing money or their jobs by taking a longer time to pay down the deficit, spreading the cuts over several years, not 18 months. The system wants to erase the deficit by July of next year.

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