City schools pay $14 million overtime in four years

Alonso's driver is the top overtime earner in 2011

March 01, 2012|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

The cash-strapped Baltimore school system has paid more than $14 million in overtime over the past four years, mostly to its understaffed police force and hundreds of temporary employees who have filled gaps created by CEO Andrés Alonso's plan to shrink the central office.

According to salary information obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the district paid about $3.4 million to nearly 1,600 city school employees in 2011, a year when school budgets were cut because of rising personnel costs.

This comes after the district vowed more scrutiny of overtime costs, which peaked at $4.6 million in 2008 but have crept up steadily since 2009, when $2.7 million was paid.

"My initial impression of these numbers is that we have a lot of people working very hard on behalf of our city schools, and the education profession can't be considered a 9-to-5 job," said Neil Duke, president of the city school board. "But the district has to look at this because we're in tight financial times."

School officials said the overtime costs are mostly tied to student safety. The vast majority of overtime earners were city school police officers and operations staff who maintain the system's crumbling infrastructure.

"We have to curb overtime, but we can't do it and compromise kids' safety," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "We are asking people to do more with less, and sometimes that can be done with a 40-hour week, and sometimes it can't be done. And when it can't be done, we have to pay people."

The top overtime earner in 2011 was Alonso's driver — a school police sergeant hired in 1975 who has worked as chauffeur to city school superintendents for two decades.

The sergeant, Ralph Askins, more than doubled his $76,819 wages, logging roughly $78,000 in overtime last year. He made more than Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose salary is $150,000, and about the same as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who makes $155,000. In addition, he earned more than the highest-paid educator in any city school.

Edwards said overtime remains an "expected expense for the system," which has a $1.3 billion budget, and doesn't put it financially at risk.

Baltimore County paid less overtime to its school employees last year — $2.7 million, according to a spokesman, who said the majority went to workers who deal with facilities emergencies such as custodians, grounds workers and maintenance workers. The county schools do not have their own police force.

City school officials said the overtime payments are the "cost of doing business." But an analysis of the salary information reflects the fact that Alonso's strategy of reducing administrative employees still carries a steep cost.

Since he arrived in 2007, Alonso has continued to chip away at the district's central office, promoting the move as a cost-saving measure as 1,600 full-time employees have left since 2008.

But while the number of full-time employees has decreased, the system has had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in overtime to salaried and hourly-rate staff, or heavily rely on temporary employees, who make between $7 and $41 an hour, plus overtime.

In 2008, when the schools chief began cutting the central office, there were 596 temporary employees working in the system who cost $53,600 in overtime. Last year, there were more than 1,184 temporary employees, who cost the system $193,000 in overtime. The highest overtime payout to a temporary employee was $24,419.

"Even though we've had to reduce the [full-time system's employees], there are times where we have to rely on people to fill gaps that the reduction has created," Edwards said. "We have to overextend people in many cases. But we have to be cognizant of how that is perceived."

Edwards said temporary employees offer cost savings because they are paid less in benefits and can be used on a flexible basis.

The overtime that teachers and principals received in 2011 was modest — a few hundred dollars each, which the system is required to pay in stipends for required activities such as professional development. The overtime earned by cafeteria workers and other support staff was in the single- and double-digits.

Salary data show that the driver position has historically incurred the most overtime costs. Askins has been paid $40 an hour under the schools chief and remained the highest overtime earner since Alonso's arrival, earning about $216,000 in overtime from 2008 to 2010.

Askins declined to comment about his earnings.

The driver is a long-standing perk that, in the region, is almost exclusive to Baltimore's superintendent.

Longtime state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick drove herself to and from most events in her three decades in that post. In his 12 years as Baltimore County superintendent, Joe A. Hairston has used a driver only when traveling to Washington and Annapolis.

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