Ehrlich, mayor nearing a deal on city schools

Senate head says terms include no layoffs or pay cuts this school year

Lawmakers urge compromise

O'Malley sees agreement on oversight authority

March 04, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

An agreement is near that would prevent teacher layoffs or salary reductions for the remainder of the school year while still advancing state money for a bailout of city schools, Maryland legislative leaders said yesterday.

"It's my understanding they've reached an agreement that there will be no layoffs or pay cuts before the end of the school year," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.

The status of teachers' jobs has been a sticking point as city and state officials negotiate the terms of a new management structure for the deficit-ridden school system.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has suggested immediate payroll cuts. City officials want to prevent teacher strikes or sickouts that could result if pay is reduced before the end of the school year. The mayor's office says the school system's labor costs can be reviewed during the summer when some teachers are expected to retire or leave for other jobs.

State Budget Secretary James C. "Chip" DiPaula Jr. indicated last night that short-term teacher protection would be part of the legislation Ehrlich submits to the General Assembly to create a temporary management team. "The governor hopes to avoid any classroom disruptions," DiPaula said.

The new school system authority would oversee city schools and close a deficit of at least $58 million.

With Ehrlich's school overhaul bill still not ready yesterday, Miller and House Speaker Michael E. Busch urged Mayor Martin O'Malley and the governor to negotiate a rapid end to their standoff.

Miller and Busch said the General Assembly should not consider a bill to revamp the school system's management until Ehrlich and O'Malley agree on terms of the deal, such as how many members sit on an oversight panel and who appoints them.

"There are two elephants in the jungle, the mayor and the governor, and the little people are getting trampled underneath," said Miller. "We want them to agree. And then we are going to do what they agree upon. We're going to introduce a bill that they agree upon, and we are going to get it passed."

O'Malley, through a spokesman, indicated that he hopes to reach an agreement.

"We shouldn't let politics get in the way of a solution," said spokesman Steve Kearney. "There's no reason this can't be resolved."

With tensions mounting over the shape of an education rescue package, dozens of parents and community activists rallied yesterday at state Board of Education headquarters in Baltimore, where they were sharply critical of a possible state takeover of city schools.

Ehrlich said he is willing to hear out O'Malley, parents and others, but in the end will submit a plan that allays the concerns of lawmakers in other parts of the state who are reluctant to spend more on Baltimore schools.

"There have been listening sessions, but there's no negotiations, because we're the bank," Ehrlich said.

With city schools facing both an accumulated deficit and a cash-flow crunch that could cause paychecks to bounce as early as next month, city and state leaders have been negotiating the terms of a $42 million loan package for more than a week.

Officials agreed Feb. 26 on the framework of a powerful new oversight authority for city schools. City leaders want a majority of a five-member panel to be city residents and hope to prevent teacher pay cuts during the current school year.

"I believe we have a deal where three of the five members are city residents," O'Malley said at a televised forum last night.

Miller, Busch and fiscal leaders in the state House and Senate agreed yesterday that they do not want a messy floor debate on the city schools rescue plan. Such a debate runs the risk of producing a bill that Ehrlich would veto, Miller said, an unacceptable outcome.

"They trust the governor, the fiscal conservatives. But the social side trusts the mayor to do what's right and not put the teachers out on the street," Miller said. "If the bill gets gutted by the city delegation, or a committee in the Senate or the House, then the governor is going to veto the bill."

Busch said Ehrlich and O'Malley must reach an agreement before the General Assembly takes up the plan. "There has to be consensus before you start moving a bill, so different factions can't start playing one off the other," Busch said.

Those statements alter the dynamic of a fiscal compromise. Before yesterday, Ehrlich had intended to introduce a bill that included many of the terms he wanted -- ignoring some of the mayor's desires. But by insisting on a rapid compromise, Miller has strengthened O'Malley's hand, giving the mayor fresh energy to push for the city participation he says is needed in any bailout plan.

Miller had critical words for how O'Malley and Ehrlich have conducted negotiations to date.

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