The teaching staff at a small East Baltimore School called out sick en masse Wednesday in what the city schools system and teachers union said appeared to be a protest against looming budget cuts and layoffs.
School system administrators condemned the teacher absences at Tench Tilghman Elementary-Middle School in a statement Wednesday afternoon, and the Baltimore Teachers Union warned that it's illegal for teachers to strike.
The teacher absences at the school near Johns Hopkins Hospital surprised student families as students were sent home and turned away at drop-off. The quiet classrooms belied smoldering tensions in the district after officials warned they might lay off more than 1,000 people to close an unprecedented budget shortfall next year.
"I am extremely disappointed that staff members may have chosen to express their anxiety about school budgets by disrupting teaching and learning for our students and compromising students' access to the services and supports we provide in a safe, positive school environment," schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement.
Contract teachers and administrators at Tench Tilghman filled in for some of the absent teachers, schools officials said.
"I encourage all City Schools staff members and the entire City Schools community to seek out ways to advocate for our students that are not at the same time detrimental to the very young people we serve," Santelises said.
The teachers union also decried what it characterized as a sick-out.
"Any action that is perceived as a strike is illegal, and is neither condoned, nor supported, by the Baltimore Teachers Union," the union said in a statement. "These actions negatively impact the classroom and put teachers and our students at risk."
Both the school system and the union qualified their statements to avoid accusing teachers of wrongdoing. The schools said "the absences may have been motivated by concerns over budget challenges and potential staff layoffs for the 2017-18 school year, rather than illness." The union statement was stronger, calling the situation a sick-out, but distancing itself from any perception of organized action by the union.
None of the participating teachers could be reached for comment Wednesday.
Schools across the city are grappling with deep cuts and considering teacher layoffs to balance the books next school year. The district has to make up a $130 million deficit, about 10 percent of city schools budget. And officials have conceded the cuts will hit hardest at small schools. Many principals expect class sizes to increase next year with fewer teachers. They're also considering furloughs and cuts to art and music programs. Some small elementary schools might combine classes of fourth- and fifth-graders.
Emotions are further inflamed by slow-going negotiations over a new teachers contract. In October, hundreds of teachers swarmed the district headquarters on North Avenue, a show of strength during contract talks they said had stalled. The dispute over the contract has come up during recent budget meetings. Union leaders have said they were neither warned nor asked for help in how to close the deficit without layoffs.
Many teachers are angry, said Alan Rebar, a teacher at Sinclair Lane Elementary School in Northeast Baltimore. He said many are using up sick days in anticipation of being laid off or to interview in Baltimore County, and he wouldn't be surprised if there were more sick-outs.
"You go in, day-in, day-out, doing your job, and you get told, 'We don't respect you. We don't care about you. We don't care about your future. It's a problem other people caused, and we're going to solve it on you,'" he said. "It's enough — people have had it. Teachers have had it. It's amazing that there aren't way more people sicking out."
But the sick-outs come at a cost for students.
"I was like, 'There's no teachers there?' I was confused," said Jessica Henderson, the mother of three Tench Tilghman students, who were turned back by administrators as she dropped them off.
"I was kind of shocked about it," she said. "My kids, they wanted to go to school."
When Michael Jones arrived at work Wednesday morning at the school, he said he found the building quiet, the classrooms dark.
"It felt odd," said the support staffer. "I guess that flu was going around."
Union leaders said in the statement Wednesday they were working to close the budget gap by meeting with lawmakers in City Hall and the State House "to find creative ways to keep our teachers and support staff in the classroom so our children will continue to receive a quality education."
Baltimore school officials have asked state and city leaders for an additional $65 million to avoid the layoffs and the worst cuts to programs. But Santelises said last week she has received no firm commitments from legislators. Without help, the funding per student at traditional schools would plunge by $1,093, or nearly 20 percent from last year. Funding at charter schools would drop $494 per student, or 5 percent.
Charter schools would receive $8,778 per student. Traditional schools would receive $4,585. Charters receive more in part because the district's central office doesn't provide them with essential services such as meals, busing and facilities.
School officials have cited declining enrollment, rising teacher salaries, an ambitious school construction program and prekindergarten as contributors to the deficit, the largest Baltimore schools have faced in recent history. Enrollment stands at about 82,000 students. The district expects to lose nearly 1,000 students next year.
By July, school officials say, state funding for the district will have fallen $79 million over four fiscal years. The city's contributions will have edged up by $13 million in that time.
Santelises has said she would look to the school system's central office for $10 million in savings by cutting spending within each department by 10 percent to 15 percent. But cuts to the central office alone can't close the gap, she has said, and $80 million would be taken from schools.
Henderson, the Tench Tilghman mother, said she worries layoffs will cause classes to swell with 40 or 50 children. She said she appreciates the teachers' frustrations, though Wednesday morning proved inconvenient.
With her children home, she had to miss work.
Baltimore Sun reporters Erica Green and Carrie Wells contributed to this article.