Some members of the Baltimore City Council are fuming over city schools CEO Gregory Thornton's handling of layoffs within the system and have decided to hold up the school budget for at least a few days over their concerns. And while there may be some legitimate questions here, we have to wonder why the council wasn't nearly as outraged by (or at least more deeply curious about) the potential $108 million deficit that required the layoffs in the first place — or perhaps by the system's subpar educational performance before there was even a deficit to report or Mr. Thornton assumed the position of CEO?
That pink slips have been handed to 59 school-based employees is regrettable, and in talking about filling the budget hole, Mr. Thornton certainly said he would target the central office, not jobs in schools. But given the scale of the problem — and the complications imposed by union contracts that allow for "bumping" rights — this shouldn't have been a surprising development. Indeed, Mr. Thornton should have explained this eventuality to the employees and the public long ago rather than offering blanket assurances that the layoffs would only affect North Avenue.
Yet the horror expressed this week by council members including Helen Holton, Sharon Green Middleton and Mary Pat Clarke might lead one to believe that Mr. Thornton had taken his cues from "Game of Thrones" and started burning his employees at the stake. Certainly, there's much to blame Mr. Thornton for, including a failure to address the budget shortfall earlier (a point that, in fairness, council members have complained about, too). But it's a marvel that it wasn't a $108 million deficit or low test scores or a high drop-out rate that truly gets the council's collective juices flowing but layoffs from schools in their districts.
Might the loss of the well-regarded Jerrell Bratcher, the director of admissions at the Monarch School, prove noteworthy given the strong community support for him, for example? It might. And we certainly have great sympathy for him personally, particularly given his obvious dedication to the job and the likelihood that he was blindsided by his layoff given what Mr. Thornton had promised. But we also need to bear in mind that his job isn't going away; rather, it and others similarly affected will be filled by someone with more seniority, in accordance with the union contract. That person may well not exhibit the same passion for the school that Mr. Bratcher has, but with all due respect to the multiple roles he filled from secretary to crossing guard, he isn't a full-time teacher, only an occasional substitute. Aren't those the folks whose jobs should be spared at all costs, the classroom personnel and not the support staff?
That so many on the City Council are quick to wail about layoffs but not actually spend their hours more closely following the day-to-day workings of the system or delve more deeply into its miserable budgetary track record is telling. Consider, for instance, that last month The Sun posted an article online about 159 central office layoffs the day Mr. Thornton presented his budget to the City Council, yet no members publicly questioned him about the job action. When asked about the central office reductions, Ms. Clarke told reporter Yvonne Wenger that the school board "couldn't avoid it."
Yet when it trickles down to neighborhood schools (or perhaps individuals represented by certain influential unions), Ms. Clarke and other are not so disinterested. It gives one the impression that schools are prized more for the jobs they create then they are for educating the next generation of Baltimoreans. Certainly, we didn't hear nearly so much outrage when Gov. Larry Hogan's charter school reforms got watered down to precious little by the General Assembly this year. Nor about the school system's poor record on college preparedness (about half of former city school students enrolled in Maryland public universities and colleges must take remedial classes).
Here's another point to keep in mind. The City Council is not Mr. Thornton's boss. That's the job of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners. The council has only the authority to make decisions regarding the city's contribution to the system's budget which is, on a per pupil basis, among the lowest in the state. Only the state's outsized contribution (nearly four times the city's share) keeps city schools financially viable. So council members can complain, but they don't have authority to do much about the situation. Mr. Thornton hasn't handled this financial debacle particularly well, but the City Council isn't exactly making anyone proud either.