Teachers want cash problems addressed

City schools' long-term mismanagement brings anger over pay-cut plan

`It has reached a boiling point'

Inaction from governor, mayor draws criticism

February 08, 2004|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Baltimore teachers risked everything Friday - their jobs and their students' education - when they voted to reject a pay cut and furloughs, but some say they did it to heighten the sense of emergency and to force elected and school leaders to confront years of financial mismanagement.

A vote to accept the salary reduction that schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland had proposed would have helped the school system balance its budget and reduce a crippling deficit by $16 million, but teachers saw it as a way to let those who caused the problem off the hook.

"They want instant solutions, paid for by the teachers, for a problem that the teachers haven't made, without taking into account how it's going to affect the kids," said Sally Kutzer, a research and robotics teacher at Polytechnic Institute. "And the mayor and the City Council are sitting and not doing anything. And the same thing with the legislators. It's like they have just let Baltimore City go."

On Friday, just over half of the more than 4,200 Baltimore Teachers Union members who cast ballots said they wouldn't accept any of Copeland's cost-cutting options, rejecting both the eight-day furlough and the 6.8 percent pay cut.

School leaders now are deciding their next move - whether it will be to lay off as many as 1,200 employees to reduce the $58 million deficit or force a pay cut on teachers and then battle it out in court.

To avoid either of those options, the school board would have to decide to pay off the deficit over a period longer than 18 months or obtain financial relief from the city or state.

Meanwhile, Copeland, who took over in July, is working this weekend to craft a plan that is expected to be voted on Tuesday by the school board. She has promised to move quickly to solve a financial crisis that threatens to bankrupt the city school system.

"I understand the high level of frustration of our teachers," said Patricia L. Welch, school board chairwoman. "I know that something has to be done in terms of the dollars. How we do that ... I am not 100 percent sure."

Sense of activism

Copeland's cost-cutting options have created an activism and anger among teachers not seen since a strike in 1974.

"Everybody is saying that it's not the employees' fault, but nobody's coming to the rescue," said Loretta Johnson, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and a leader in the Baltimore Teachers Union. "It's just unfair, and people are angry. The philosophy is always, `Take it out on the workers.'"

Peter French, a middle school teacher at Midtown Academy, said he believes Friday's vote showed that teachers wanted officials to admit their mistakes and say they were sorry to have to ask the teachers for help.

"It came down to the arrogance of Bonnie Copeland and the board and the mayor and the governor," he said.

French said teachers are fully aware that their dismissive vote could prompt layoffs - most of them teachers - creating an educational emergency. But that might prove beneficial in the end, he said.

"We need some attention on this school system and we need it now. People are furious with the mayor and the governor. These people are elected to oversee the welfare of the children in Baltimore," French said. "And [they have said] nothing except, `You have to get your house in order.'"

Many teachers say that being asked to shoulder the burden of the deficit was a final insult heaped onto years of injuries.

Working in the city school system, they say, has meant dealing with "complications, constant changes and all these upheavals" on a regular basis, said Anna Valerio, an ESOL teacher at Polytechnic Institute.

"The struggle to me is annual," she said. "I don't even expect it to be smooth."

Teachers repeatedly bring up these points as examples:

In heated contract negotiations this year, teachers sacrificed a pay raise to help reduce the budget deficit; just a few months later, school officials laid off 800 central office employees, temporary workers - many of them in schools - guidance counselors and uncertified teachers.

The teachers also gave up contract perks, including a policy that allowed them to cash in up to three days of unused sick leave. The contract also requires teachers to pay more for health care costs.

Teachers' lunch breaks have been cut to a half-hour from 45 minutes.

"We get tired of always hearing: `There's no money. You can't have this. You can't have that,'" Valerio said. "And we're not talking about things for ourselves. We're talking about things for the school, things for the kids."

On Friday, teachers voiced those frustrations with a symbolic vote.

"It's just gotten to where it has reached a boiling point," said Alan Rebar, a teacher at Highlandtown Elementary School No. 215."You put together who they laid off before and who they want to lay off now, that's 2,000 people. And then they say, `Oh, well, then you can just take a pay cut.' It's to the point where people are saying, `This is enough. Draw a line. Stand and fight.'"

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