Baltimore school system braces for layoffs despite new aid

Baltimore City schools chief Sonja Santelises said Tuesday she will have to lay off employees despite commitments by state and city leaders to help fill a budget gap for the next school year.

Teachers and other staff throughout the school system received written notices Tuesday telling them to expect a layoff announcement in May.

The letter, written by interim human resources chief DeRay McKesson, said employees across many areas of the system could be affected, including teachers, administrators and school police officers.

Although district administrators initially projected 1,000 people would be laid-off, Santelises said "significantly less" employees would be let go because of $60 million in new assistance from the city and state.

The additional funds, as well as cuts Santelises made to the central office staff, helped reduce a $130 million budget shortfall for the coming year. The result: School principals who together had been expected to absorb $90 million in budget cuts will instead have to cut about $30 million.

"We pushed $90 million of cuts down to schools and now we have returned two thirds" of the money, said Santelises.

Christophe Turk, principal of George Washington Elementary in Pigtown, said the restored money means he won't have to lay off two of his 19 teachers. A teacher generally costs about $90,000 a year in salary, health insurance and benefits.

"Morale is certainly in a better place when you go from losing two teacher positions to having those positions back," Turk said.

But layoffs were still expected elsewhere. Santelises would not specify how many people would be let go.

Individual principals had been asked to submit budgets this winter that included severe cuts to staff and programs. Santelises said the school leaders are now deciding what to restore with the additional funds and are "overwhelmingly choosing" to keep as many teaching positions as possible.

The ongoing budget process has been the biggest challenge for principals since they were given power over their schools' finances nearly a decade ago.

Santelises, who took over the school system last summer, announced last fall that it faced a $130 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1. After an extensive lobbying campaign by parents and education advocates, Gov. Larry Hogan and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh agreed to help fill a portion of the budget gap.

Negotiations with the unions — including the teachers' union — are still underway and Santelises said she hoped some savings realized through the negotiations could further reduce the need for reductions in staff.

A school system analysis shows that spending on benefits is significantly higher than most surrounding districts.

Details of which people and programs are being cut from the budget won't be known for a month.

"The city delegation and the mayor did some heavy lifting to come up with $60 million to avoid disastrous cuts, but the school system is left with a $30 million or $40 million gap. So that is going to have an unfortunate impact on schools," said Bebe Verdery, education director of the ACLU of Maryland.

Before any layoffs are announced, officials said, city school leaders will revise the budget to reflect the additional revenues and ask all employees about whether they intend to stay in their jobs next school year. The school system will then be able to determine the number of layoffs.

The reductions will be made based on seniority and the criteria in collective bargaining contract agreements with several unions.

The layoffs will occur when there are more people than positions in any given job title or subject area, and will be implemented according to ranking. Besides the school reductions, some central office could also face lay offs, according to Santelises.

The school system is holding information sessions for school leaders and union members this month.

liz.bowie@baltsun

@lizbowie

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