Mayor seeks alternatives to school cuts

O'Malley and Copeland to meet on planned layoffs

Teachers rejected pay cut

Extending deadline to pay deficit to be considered

February 09, 2004|By Doug Donovan | Doug Donovan,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley said yesterday that he will meet with schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland today to devise a counterproposal to Baltimore teachers who rejected pay cuts and furloughs Friday that would have helped the school system erase part of its $58 million deficit.

O'Malley also addressed teachers' escalating criticism that he has not done enough to help the ailing school system. He said he has been working closely with Copeland, whom he characterized as more receptive to his help than the previous schools administration.

"There is no way we can allow the layoffs of a full 1,200 hardworking teachers," O'Malley said yesterday after a Mass in Little Italy commemorating the Great Fire of 1904. "I'm not going to abandon our teachers, I'm not going to abandon the gains our children have made."

Baltimore Teachers Union members voted Friday to reject Copeland's proposals for pay cuts or furloughs that would have helped the school system balance its budget and reduce its deficit by $16 million.

Just more than half of the 4,200 union members who cast ballots - 2,161 - turned down both proposals. Of the rest, 1,582 voted to accept an eight-day furlough, and 503 said they would take a 6.8 percent salary reduction.

Tomorrow, Copeland is expected to present to the school board a plan that could call for cutting 1,200 jobs or for forcing a pay cut on teachers, an action that probably would end up in court. She could recommend paying off the deficit over a period longer than 18 months.

O'Malley said his administration is working to find a way to pay the deficit off over a longer period. He said teachers may be open to a compromise.

"The vote shows that teachers are willing to make some sacrifices," O'Malley said.

Teachers castigated O'Malley and other elected officials over the weekend for allowing the school system's finances to spiral out of control. The mayor and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. jointly appoint the system's nine-member school board, which independently governs the school system.

A change in state law in 1997 prohibited the mayor from running the public schools. In exchange, the schools have received more state money and more state involvement. The city contributes $201.1 million to the school system, or about 23 percent of the school system's more than $900 million budget. The state provides about 61 percent, with the federal government and other sources giving the rest.

"There's been no leadership whatsoever," said Myles Hoenig, a teacher at Southwestern High School. "O'Malley is ignoring the role of a mayor. He should stand up for the schools and the teachers."

Loretta Johnson, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers are furious that O'Malley and other elected officials promote the school system's academic achievements but then propose to correct past mismanagement by firing the teachers who made the gains possible.

"Where is the mayor, where is the governor, where is the City Council, where are the state legislators? That's what they were asking," Johnson said. "They feel that politicians have let them down."

"The mayor has to involve himself more," Johnson said. "He can't say, `I don't control the system.'"

O'Malley said he understands the anger of teachers and said he is equally frustrated.

"I'm angry, too," O'Malley said.

But, he added, he is now in a position to do more to help then at any other time since he was elected in 1999 because of the cooperation of Copeland, who was appointed the system's chief executive officer in November. O'Malley said the former administration, headed by Carmen V. Russo, was so focused on academic reforms that it "failed to put in place budget and accounting systems ... that would have kept this stealth deficit from creeping up on us."

"They would like me to ride in on a white horse with bags of money under both arms," O'Malley said. "But I'm the level of government with the least money."

City government is in the midst of devising its balanced budget for next fiscal year and faces a projected deficit of $30 million, O'Malley said. The city is already contributing to schools more than its required amount and has begun to make advance payments to the system.

During last year's primary election, O'Malley ran several campaign commercials about schools and launched his campaign outside an elementary school. Last Monday, the mayor's State of the City address furthered his campaign promise to improve schools.

"The real measure of our progress as a people is the achievements of our children," he said.

He then highlighted the litany of academic accomplishments of public school students: increased reading and math scores; three high schools ranked in the state's top 10; higher graduation rates; and first- and second-graders scoring above the national average for the first time in 30 years.

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