City teachers put lives on hold in hard times

Uncertainty: Worried about pay cuts and layoffs, many are pinching pennies and trying to think of ways to cut back.

February 10, 2004|By Tanika White and Liz Bowie | Tanika White and Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Brian Biles hoped to stockpile a comfortable reserve in his 401(k) for his eventual retirement.

Victoria A. Clausen had just begun renovations on the old fixer-upper she and her husband fell in love with this summer.

And Kojo McCallum wanted to shower his 8-year-old daughter with gifts on her birthday this past weekend.

But as threats of pay cuts and layoffs loom over the Baltimore school system, the three city teachers, like many others in the cash-strapped system, have been forced to pinch pennies and put activities, projects and even future goals on hold.

"Right now everything is just so up in the air," said Clausen, who teaches English as a second language at Garrett Heights Elementary School. "Not knowing what's going to happen, you just think of anything you can do to try to cut back."

Tonight, schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland is expected to present to the school board a plan that could call for laying off up to 1,200 employees -- most of them teachers -- or forcing a pay cut on all the system's workers. The action would help the school system balance its budget and reduce a $58 million cumulative deficit by about $16 million.

Teachers across the system have been bracing themselves for the system's next step. For some, that has meant curbing small day-to-day spending. For others, it's meant taking more drastic steps, such as scrimping on groceries or delaying long-term plans.

Biles, for example, teaches math to ninth-graders and knows the value of a dollar. He doesn't spend lavishly, and regularly saves a part of his paycheck. But the school system's fiscal crisis -- and the possible fallout -- has caused Biles, 30, to do something he never thought he'd have to do. This week, he's calling his financial adviser and stopping the biweekly contribution he makes to his 401(k).

Instead, he'll use that money to put away into a more accessible savings account, just in case he loses a portion of his salary, or gets laid off.

"This definitely makes you look at your finances a different way," said Biles, a math teacher at New Era Academy in Cherry Hill. "It's sad that I'm 30 years old and I have to think about doing this. I feel like we're at Enron. As a teacher, I never thought that I might be losing my job."

If he is laid off, Biles said, his father has told him to come home to Delaware and find a job there.

"But I told him, `I don't want to go back to Delaware,'" Biles said. "I like teaching here."

McCallum, 32, said he loves his job teaching fourth-graders at Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary, but that hasn't stopped him from sending out resumes and filling out applications for part-time work. He has even considered waiting tables at the Cheesecake Factory or being a fry cook at Burger King. Any paycheck, McCallum said, is better than none at all.

"I'd be a fool if I didn't plan," he said. "I can't wait until the ball drops."

In the meantime, the father of two has had to cut back on a number of expenses. He's slashed the grocery bill in half, and downgraded his daily gym membership to a three-day-a-week plan.

One of the most painful sacrifices, he said, was this Sunday when he had to disappoint his daughter on her eighth birthday with two small gifts, as opposed to the Christmaslike presentation he usually offers "Daddy's little girl."

"Usually I shower her with gifts," McCallum said. "She looked at me and said, `Daddy, is that it?'"

Fellow teacher Clausen said she worries most about people like McCallum, who have children to take care of, and are facing a pay cut or layoffs.

But Clausen, 39, still doesn't think it's fair that the windows in her newly purchased house in Lauraville have to stay sheathed in plastic to keep out the cold, because she and her husband aren't sure they'll be able to afford to finish renovations.

"It's an insult to teachers," said Clausen.

The house in Northeast Baltimore, of 1940s vintage, has charm, she said, but still needs new floors and bathrooms, windows and siding.

Since buying it this summer, the Clausens started some refurbishing, but have decided it's best to live with the project only partially completed until the school's financial problems are solved.

"I've just held off on a lot of things," she said. "We've stopped all renovations. We're not going to take a vacation. We're not going anywhere for spring break."

And Biles said he wonders when he'll ever feel comfortable enough in his teaching job to return to building his retirement fund.

"What's to say, even if I get to stay here, that come May or June I might not lose my job anyway," he said.

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