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SCHOOL CLOSINGS

Teachers want cash problems addressed

Baltimore teachers risked everything Friday - their jobs and their students' education - when they voted to reject a pay cut and furloughs, but some say they did it to heighten the sense of emergency and to force elected and school leaders to confront years of financial mismanagement.

A vote to accept the salary reduction that schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland had proposed would have helped the school system balance its budget and reduce a crippling deficit by $16 million, but teachers saw it as a way to let those who caused the problem off the hook.

"They want instant solutions, paid for by the teachers, for a problem that the teachers haven't made, without taking into account how it's going to affect the kids," said Sally Kutzer, a research and robotics teacher at Polytechnic Institute. "And the mayor and the City Council are sitting and not doing anything. And the same thing with the legislators. It's like they have just let Baltimore City go."

On Friday, just over half of the more than 4,200 Baltimore Teachers Union members who cast ballots said they wouldn't accept any of Copeland's cost-cutting options, rejecting both the eight-day furlough and the 6.8 percent pay cut.

School leaders now are deciding their next move - whether it will be to lay off as many as 1,200 employees to reduce the $58 million deficit or force a pay cut on teachers and then battle it out in court.

To avoid either of those options, the school board would have to decide to pay off the deficit over a period longer than 18 months or obtain financial relief from the city or state.

Meanwhile, Copeland, who took over in July, is working this weekend to craft a plan that is expected to be voted on Tuesday by the school board. She has promised to move quickly to solve a financial crisis that threatens to bankrupt the city school system.

"I understand the high level of frustration of our teachers," said Patricia L. Welch, school board chairwoman. "I know that something has to be done in terms of the dollars. How we do that ... I am not 100 percent sure."

Sense of activism

Copeland's cost-cutting options have created an activism and anger among teachers not seen since a strike in 1974.

"Everybody is saying that it's not the employees' fault, but nobody's coming to the rescue," said Loretta Johnson, vice president of the American Federation of Teachers and a leader in the Baltimore Teachers Union. "It's just unfair, and people are angry. The philosophy is always, 'Take it out on the workers.'"

Peter French, a middle school teacher at Midtown Academy, said he believes Friday's vote showed that teachers wanted officials to admit their mistakes and say they were sorry to have to ask the teachers for help.

"It came down to the arrogance of Bonnie Copeland and the board and the mayor and the governor," he said.

French said teachers are fully aware that their dismissive vote could prompt layoffs - most of them teachers - creating an educational emergency. But that might prove beneficial in the end, he said.

"We need some attention on this school system and we need it now. People are furious with the mayor and the governor. These people are elected to oversee the welfare of the children in Baltimore," French said. "And [they have said] nothing except, 'You have to get your house in order.'"

Many teachers say that being asked to shoulder the burden of the deficit was a final insult heaped onto years of injuries.

Working in the city school system, they say, has meant dealing with "complications, constant changes and all these upheavals" on a regular basis, said Anna Valerio, an ESOL teacher at Polytechnic Institute.

"The struggle to me is annual," she said. "I don't even expect it to be smooth."

Teachers repeatedly bring up these points as examples:

  • In heated contract negotiations this year, teachers sacrificed a pay raise to help reduce the budget deficit; just a few months later, school officials laid off 800 central office employees, temporary workers - many of them in schools - guidance counselors and uncertified teachers.
  • The teachers also gave up contract perks, including a policy that allowed them to cash in up to three days of unused sick leave. The contract also requires teachers to pay more for health care costs.
  • Teachers' lunch breaks have been cut to a half-hour from 45 minutes. "We get tired of always hearing: 'There's no money. You can't have this. You can't have that,'" Valerio said. "And we're not talking about things for ourselves. We're talking about things for the school, things for the kids." On Friday, teachers voiced those frustrations with a symbolic vote. "It's just gotten to where it has reached a boiling point," said Alan Rebar, a teacher at Highlandtown Elementary School No. 215."You put together who they laid off before and who they want to lay off now, that's 2,000 people. And then they say, 'Oh, well, then you can just take a pay cut.' It's to the point where people are saying, 'This is enough. Draw a line. Stand and fight.'" If Copeland decides to begin layoffs Tuesday, school staff have said 800 teachers, as well as several hundred more administrators and support staff, are likely to go. The union contract would require Copeland to lay off the least-senior teachers first, likely hitting hardest at the low-performing schools, which have the largest number of new teachers. One teacher estimated that 80 percent of Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School's staff might be vulnerable.Staff relocation After the layoffs, teachers would be moved around the system to fill in gaps, possibly requiring some to work outside of their areas of expertise. Fourth-grade teacher Adell Brooks was relocated to Govans Elementary School this fall, three months into her first year of teaching, because of the domino effect caused by the first round of layoffs. Now she's worried she'll be laid off, too. "They recruited me at a job fair from the university that I went to. If they knew about this deficit, they didn't say a word," said Brooks, who had to leave her students at Westside Elementary school when she transferred. "I moved here. I'm here by myself. If something happens and I'm out of a job, I don't know what I'm going to do." Some teachers said, too, that agreeing to concessions would allow lawmakers and taxpayers to overlook that the city schools are sorely underfunded. "Looking toward teachers or janitors ... to ask us to find more funding is averting the actual issue - which is we need more federal funding and we need more state funding. Baltimore City is a very low-income district," said Rachel Projanksy, a Cross Country Elementary School teacher. The demographics of the district might be one reason why lawmakers and elected officials seem to be turning a blind eye, some teachers said. "This is a black urban environment and we have people who simply don't care," said French of Midtown Academy. "Some people, they feel like the people in Annapolis have just abandoned us," said Polytechnic Institute's Kutzer, who has been in the system 31 years. "They would never allow something like this to happen in a Montgomery County or a Howard County."
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