A City Council committee declined Tuesday to approve hundreds of millions of dollars for Baltimore's schools, saying education officials had misled the council to believe layoffs would be limited to central office staff — then sent pink slips to 59 school-based employees.
Members of council's Budget Committee said they were demanding answers from schools CEO Gregory Thornton on how he's handling the layoffs that school officials said were needed to close a multimillion-dollar budget hole. They said they would meet again Friday to consider the school system's budget.
A school system official told the panel that the downsizing was complicated by union contracts that allowed some laid-off workers to "bump" into the jobs of others.
"You've traumatized people because there was a lack of communication," City Councilwoman Sharon Green Middleton told school officials testifying before the committee. "You're not communicating with people. How dare you blame it on collective bargaining? It's so disrespectful. It's disheartening."
Dawana Sterrette, a lobbyist for the school system, told the committee that school officials eliminated 119 central office positions to close a budget shortfall, but also cut "several hundred surplus individuals" — full-time teachers and staff who are on the system's books, but have no permanent placements.
When the "surplus" staff learned of the layoffs, some invoked union rights to "bump" school-based employees out of their jobs, Sterrette said.
She said system administrators had no choice but to then lay off employees in the schools.
"We must follow the rules of the collective bargaining agreement," Sterrette said. "Unfortunately, some people that have been in roles deemed essential have been bumped."
Council members said Thornton never mentioned that the layoffs would affect school-based staff. The committee chair, Helen Holton, said Thornton and other school officials had not been forthright about the impact of the layoffs.
"We were told the cuts were coming from North Avenue," Holton said. "We were told no cuts were coming from the schools."
In a letter to top school officials, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said she planned to introduce an amendment to the school system's budget to take "exception to this unannounced, inequitable, and arbitrary series of 59 specific layoffs from school-based budgets in which the laid-off positions still remain funded."
Clarke asked the school board to rescind the 59 layoff notices. She said they were doing "great damage" to individual schools.
Clarke cited the layoff of Jerrell Bratcher — the director of admissions for the Monarch School in Northeast Baltimore — as an example of an unwise decision. She called him a "founding, essential and exemplary member" of the school.
Community members have rallied around Bratcher after news spread of his layoff. He wrote in a widely circulated letter that he has "worked tirelessly until midnight or around the clock on many days, nights, weekends, Saturdays, Sundays, and Holidays to support the students and families of Monarch Academy."
One of the school's founding staff members, Bratcher was pulled into a meeting last week and informed that his position was being eliminated due to budget constraints.
In an interview with The Baltimore Sun, Bratcher said the district wasn't forthright in telling him that his position actually might be filled by someone else.
"If it were budgeted for me, it should be for me," he said.
School district payroll records list him as a secretary making $40,000, but he said he actually filled more than 15 roles that are integral to the school's operations, including clerical work, recruitment efforts and even serving as its crossing guard and a substitute teacher when there's a shortage.
"Any position where there's a gap, I've been there to fill that in," he said. "Before we had a building, I worked for this school. I've had other job offers, but I would rather be here to support our students, our staff."
At Tuesday's hearing, Holton referred to Bratcher's situation as evidence that the school system's handling of the layoffs has been inhumane.
"He was given a slip to say you're gone," she told Sterrette. "This speaks to part of what's wrong with our system. We are more focused on paper and procedure than how we impact the lives of the community. ... We have to stop the madness."
City school officials did not respond to a request for comment on the City Council action nor other criticism Thornton has faced over the layoffs.
Leaders of affected schools have also decried Thornton's approach to layoffs as infringing on their autonomy and lacking transparency.
Principals slated to lose staff received an email just hours before central office employees were deployed to schools to break the news.
Principals said they were not only told that they were going to lose a staff member they had hired, but that the central office would fill the position with someone of its choosing — a move that reverses a policy of "mutual consent" started under former Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso that allowed principals and staff to agree on a job placement.
At the city school board meeting Tuesday night, there were more calls for Thornton to reverse the layoffs of the 59 school-based staff.
Marc Martin, principal of Commodore John Rodgers School, told the board the staff member he was forced to cut didn't fit any of the criteria outlined by Thornton for staff who would be laid off. His staff member was in a permanently funded position, supported by the school's budget.
Martin said district officials argued that while principals may not have kept the people they wanted, they maintained "positional authority." But a principal's ability to decide who joins their team is just as important to a school's success, he said.
"Everyone in this room knows, it's about the people, not the position," Martin said.
Parents cited Martin's ability to make decisions about his staff for the school's notable progress in the last five years.
They also called the laid-off Commodore employee, staff associate Krystal Henry, everything from a "mother figure" to a key part of the school's foundation.
"There are people who say we're waiting for superman. We feel like we're losing our superwoman," said parent Barry Armstrong.
Henry also attended the board meeting and asked to keep her job. Her husband, who worked at district headquarters, was also laid off in Thornton's reorganization of the central office, details of which have yet to be disclosed to the public.
"I think I spend more time with [children at Commodore] than I do with my own," Henry told the school board. "I don't know what I can do, but I am asking for this decision to be reversed."