Perilous

February 11, 2004

YOU COULD ALMOST hear the hoofbeats as Mayor Martin O'Malley arrived at a City Hall press conference yesterday to announce that a deal had been struck to lend the school system the $16 million it needs to keep going - and just in the nick of time. Only hours remained before the school board was to meet and decide whether to impose furloughs, pay cuts or widespread layoffs on the city's teachers.

It was crisis management, and the results are laudable - though Baltimoreans might wonder why it had to come to this.

The mayor was goaded into action by the realization that the school board might just decide to lay off up to 1,200 teachers, even though no one, including schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland, thought that would be anything less than a huge blow to the system.

Losing so many teachers, in itself, would be devastating enough, but the effect would have been magnified throughout the system. Schools with younger teachers - often those in poorer neighborhoods - would have been hit hardest, and that would have meant transfers to fill the gaps from other schools. The chaos, coming two-thirds of the way through the year, would have seriously dented the schools' ability to continue providing an education; the expanded class sizes would have been a retreat from one of the truly concrete accomplishments of the past six years.

The vote by the teachers union last week to reject the idea of furloughs or the withholding of 7 percent of their pay finally got Mr. O'Malley's attention. On Monday, he was casting about for a compromise - perhaps with an unprecedented appeal for a loan from the city's foundations. That didn't happen in the end - instead, if the teachers accept half the proposed salary withholding (to be paid back next year), the city will lend the schools the remaining $8 million out of its rainy day fund.

The deal is a good one. Teachers' salaries have gone up considerably in the past six years - 40 percent and more - and the General Assembly, which foots most of the bill for the city, is aware of that. It makes sense, politically, to share the burden - in a way that won't hurt the city's schoolchildren. And the money will be paid back to the teachers within 17 months. (The payback to the city will be spread over an additional year.)

The city does take a risk - another emergency could draw the rainy day fund down to levels that would threaten Baltimore's bond rating. But these sacrifices are worth the stability they will ensure - though Robert R. Neall, the system's financial adviser, warned yesterday that more such Perils of Pauline crises are certain to crop up in the next 18 months or so. For now, though, everything depends on the teachers and other school employees: We urge them to vote yes when they consider the new proposal tomorrow.

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