Brenda Payne knew something was terribly wrong back in October.
That's when one of the three sixth-grade teachers at Morrell Park Elementary-Middle School abruptly resigned and was not replaced by officials at headquarters. Overnight, in the middle of a semester, Payne and fellow sixth-grade teacher Sharon Klein had to take on the pupils of the departed teacher.
"We had to find room for nine more desks in each of our rooms," Payne says, "and nine more chairs and textbooks. But we carried on. We're used to that kind of stuff."
Cutbacks, confusion and anxiety about the future have burdened teachers and principals in Baltimore schools in the months since the financial crisis swept across the system. Payne regularly hauls trash, sweeps and feels guilty because she has an aide and Klein doesn't.
Their principal, Leslie Barnett Davis, does cafeteria duty, occasionally mops a floor and writes recommendations - for teachers applying for jobs in more stable systems elsewhere.
These are trying times in a district hurtling toward insolvency. While politicians engage in high-profile negotiations to seek a solution, Payne, Davis and their colleagues labor at ground level - and in virtual obscurity - to deliver the best education they can.
Davis, 54, a teacher and administrator for 32 years, has seen other crises, including the monthlong teacher strike in 1974. She's dismayed by the inconveniences brought about by layoffs and budget cuts - the loss of part-timers, aides and elementary counselors, the depletion of the budget for materials and supplies, the doubling up of classes because of a lack of funds to pay substitutes. But these are short-term problems, she thinks, that can be solved.
"What really worries me is what's going to happen if our best teachers are laid off or are driven off. I had a literal nightmare the other night," Davis says. "My boss called me Labor Day weekend and said the schools wouldn't open next week because there were too many vacancies. I hope that was a dream and not a premonition."
Ten of the 16 elementary instructors at Davis' Southwest Baltimore school - many of them new to teaching - have asked her for job recommendations. "Some of them were nearly in tears," Davis says. "I advise them to go ahead and apply, but don't be eager to abandon ship. As bad as things might get, they're still going to need teachers in the classrooms."
Running a school in a time of crisis, Davis says, "is almost like running a marriage. You have good times and bad, but you can never abandon your family."
Although they're on the front lines of the crisis, teachers and principals feel left out of the official discussions, abandoned and unappreciated. And they're keenly aware that none of the major players in the drama - not the mayor, not the governor, nor the city and state superintendents - has a child in Baltimore public schools.
"We haven't heard an encouraging word from North Avenue except for a letter the day after the sick-out," a protest the morning after teachers overwhelmingly rejected a proposal that they defer wages in return for $16 million in city and private loans to keep city schools solvent, says Tammy Ondis, 38, a prekindergarten teacher at Morrell Park.
The day of the sick-out "was the worst," adds Diana Weller, 25, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade science and volunteers to teach an afternoon art class "so that we can have some art at Morrell Park."
The schools' opening was delayed two hours that day, she says, "and when I came to work I felt like I was going on a battlefield, not knowing what to expect. By now I'm just numb. Every night there's another crisis, and we have to be there the next morning all bright-eyed and ready to teach the kids."
Davis expresses pride that none of her teachers participated in the sick-out. "One did call from her sick bed to say she was genuinely sick and that she wasn't making a political statement," she says.
Amid the chaos last week, city schools had to administer the 2004 Maryland School Assessment. "You would have been amazed at how everyone chipped in," Davis says. "We had teachers and kids come in who were downright sick. It was a point of pride to be here and do well."
Davis says she and her fellow principals are doing their best to focus on their jobs with as little distraction as possible. "All the attention above me is on the problem above me," she says. "At my level, my job is to worry about my staff. I'm not sure what to tell them. Will there be layoffs or pay cuts? I can't tell what next year will look like. I can only tell about today."
The struggle has "brought us together like a big family," Ondis says. "That's because every teacher understands what her colleagues are going through. It's like clinging together for support in a storm."