School alarms

February 10, 2004

REBUFFED BY Baltimore's teachers last week, Bonnie S. Copeland must go to the city school board today with a proposal on what to do next in the struggle with the system's $58 million deficit. Unfortunately, the schools chief had threatened the teachers with up to 1,200 layoffs if they refused to go along with her idea of furloughs or pay cuts; if that was a bluff, they called her on it.

If it wasn't a bluff, the good news now is that some other options may be available. Layoffs of that magnitude are just not tenable, because of the damage they would inflict on the system and on the city's children.

In the past 48 hours, Mayor Martin O'Malley has weighed in against layoffs. He says he is trying to find a compromise, and that Ms. Copeland is amenable. The mayor's involvement is late but welcome. To allay suspicions that he has been waiting for his chance to ride in on a white horse, he must now engage in some creative, hard and sustained work.

One option for Ms. Copeland is simply to impose furloughs or pay cuts. This would be a violation of the teachers' contract and it would probably land the school board in court - where it might very well prevail. School officials are convinced, in any case, that the only way to win support in Annapolis is to show that everyone in the system is prepared to share in the pain. Yet teachers ask, with some justification, why they must shoulder so much of it when they were barely responsible for the mismanagement that caused the deficit, and that kept it hidden for so long.

Last night, Mr. O'Malley - who has little actual say in the system but a great deal at stake politically - said he is working on a variation of that plan "to keep things out of the courts." The idea is to ask teachers to accept a pay cut or furloughs, but milder than those rejected last week. To make up the difference in the $16 million that Ms. Copeland hopes to save, the system may be able to turn for assistance to the city's foundations, or even the banks. Money coming in down the road would pay back the bridge loans from those private sources. Would this be dipping into future Thornton funds? It depends how much of a stickler you want to be over the definition of Thornton funds.

The school system has made admirable gains in test scores and graduation rates, but lost its grip on expenditures under the city-state partnership that assumed power over the schools in 1997. The system is now in the necessary and painful process of putting its house back in order - but it would be criminal to jeopardize those gains with hugely damaging and long-lasting cutbacks.

The mayor is on the right track. Today is the day to hammer out a plan - one that the unions, the administration and City Hall can all sign on to. An imaginative compromise will win favor in Annapolis. That will not, however, be the signal for politicians to disengage. The one lesson from this crisis is that someone has to mind the store.

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