Major hurdles remain in city schools talks

Teacher contracts, makeup of proposed oversight team potential stumbling blocks

Issues `the two deal-breakers'

Negotiators set to meet in Annapolis today

March 01, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Negotiators working on a new management structure for the troubled Baltimore City schools will meet in Annapolis today, with the status of teachers union contracts emerging as a key impediment to a final deal.

Bill drafters worked through the weekend on the framework of emergency legislation that could set the stage for a $42 million state loan for the school system. But the draft had several holes -- such as what powers a new oversight authority should have, and whether the panel would have the ability to alter union contracts.

Lawmakers said today's negotiations could produce fireworks as those and other issues are debated. While Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has indicated that he believes teachers must make concessions to solve the crisis, city officials say asking for pay cuts would cause unacceptable classroom disruptions.

"I think the two deal-breakers are renegotiating contracts during the course of the current academic year, and a majority of the members of the commission have to be city residents," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat. "If that's not the case, you are going to have a real problem."

Added Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee: "I'm anxious to see what we walk into."

Ehrlich is seeking a new temporary management team to oversee the school system and develop a plan for erasing an operating deficit before he advances $42 million to help the system with a cash-flow crisis. Without help, schools could run out of money this month.

"We want to try to get this done as quickly as possible," said James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr., the state budget secretary. The draft legislation, DiPaula said, followed the outlines of a preliminary agreement hammered out at a State House meeting Thursday night.

Staffers "made an awful lot of progress," DiPaula said, "in pulling together legislation that reflects a good deal of what we discussed last week."

While Ehrlich has said the meeting Thursday solved "80 percent" of outstanding issues, Mayor Martin O'Malley portrayed the outcome far differently. In an e-mail sent to thousands of city residents Friday, O'Malley said Ehrlich had mischaracterized the results.

The size of a new management board, who appoints its members and what powers it will have all must be resolved, O'Malley said in the e-mail.

"There must be no further classroom disruptions -- including teacher layoffs or pay cuts this school year. Our children and parents have suffered enough from this upheaval," the mayor wrote. "There cannot be the equivalent of receivership through legislation."

City lawmakers say they are paying close attention to the wishes of the Maryland State Teachers Association, which is opposed to any management system that appears to be a state takeover of city schools.

"I understand the unions are trying to get involved. A bunch of stuff is in the equation," said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat.

Opposition from the influential union, lawmakers said, would persuade many Democrats to vote against the bill.

City and state officials are talking about legislation to create a temporary management structure that would assume much of the responsibilities of the current school board. The bill will be submitted by Ehrlich, a Republican, but will need many votes from majority Democrats to pass.

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