Baltimore Sun

A community grows irate and demands answers

Enraged by a financial crisis that has enveloped the Baltimore school system in layoff talks for weeks, parents, community leaders and even school officials are demanding criminal investigations, threatening to file lawsuits and asking for a shake-up of the school board.

Also, three city school unions will vote today on a crucial compromise that would require them to accept temporary 3.5 percent pay cuts to avoid even deeper salary reductions or possible mass layoffs.

If the unions agree, the city has pledged to lend the school system $8 million to help it meet budget goals this school year.

If the unions reject this package, school officials say, they will impose 6.8 percent pay cuts or lay off up to 1,200 of the system's more than 11,000 employees.

"Clearly, people are fed up," said Kevin Slayton, president of the city school system's Parent Community Advisory Board. "I think parents are just concerned in general with the education in Baltimore City. These children who are primarily children of color seem to get a second-rate education, and I think it's just reached a peak."

As the crisis escalated:

  • At least two parent groups have called for criminal investigations.

  • A group of area clergy has threatened a lawsuit.

  • State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is expected to announce tomorrow the makeup of an investigative panel that will look into the schools' finances.

    Bill Reinhard, a state schools spokesman, said Grasmick's panel of private citizens from the business, legal and education fields will launch a "broad-ranging" inquiry.

    "If it looks as though there is criminal wrongdoing, they will turn it over to the [state] attorney general," Reinhard said.

    The school system is facing a $58 million cumulative deficit. As a result, 800 school employees, including teachers, guidance counselors and aides, were laid off earlier this school year.

    Schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland has said she intends to impose a pay cut or lay off workers if the proposal is rejected.

    "This has kind of awoken a deep-seated need in this city for citizens' activism," said Bob Heck, head of Advocates for Reform at the Top, a grassroots group of parents from Roland Park and Mount Washington elementary schools - one of the parent groups calling for a criminal investigation. "We are working hard to try to be the voice of the one group that must be protected, which is children."

    Heck said his group will meet tomorrow morning with the deputy attorney general to discuss its concerns.

    Parents' demands

    Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said he will hold a meeting of parents Saturday at Union Baptist Church.

    Hamilton said his group also is calling for a criminal investigation as well as an audit of the system's hiring practices.

    In addition, he said, parents are considering filing lawsuits.

    "If these [actions] find that the board failed in their fiduciary responsibilities," Hamilton said, "then we are calling for the resignation of the board members who were a part of that process."

    Yesterday, more than 40 of the city's clergy said they plan to file a lawsuit against the city and the state that would call for an investigation into possible wrongdoing, and attempt to block layoffs.

    "We will do by any means necessary what needs to be done for the welfare of our children," said the Rev. R. Lee Johnson, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Baltimore and Vicinity, which was one of the many religious groups represented at a news conference to announce the plan.

    Tense meeting

    At a charged school board meeting Tuesday night, board member Brian D. Morris had asked that the board vote to request the state attorney general look into how the school system ended up in such a fiscal crisis.

    The board voted against Morris' motion, angering parents.

    "Those in position of knowledge and trust once again avoided accountability by deciding against an independent investigation of its own role in the crisis," said Heck, of the parents' reform group.

    Today, teachers and other unionized school employees will vote on whether to accept the 3.5 percent pay cut for 20 weeks proposed in the plan hammered out by Mayor Martin O'Malley, school officials and union leaders.

    The pay cut would begin immediately and be repaid to the employees from February 2005 to June 2005.

    The pay reduction would save the system $8 million.

    For the average teacher, the pay cut would mean a loss of about $600.

    Loan to system

    In return for all three unions' support, the city would loan the school system $8 million.

    The total of $16 million in savings would allow Copeland to meet her budget this year and pay down a crippling $58 million deficit.

    Copeland and top administrators would take the same pay cut; in the school chief's case, that amounts to $2,585.

    The only employees who would not be subject to the pay cut are principals, administrators and nonunion workers who have already voted to accept furloughs.

    Last Friday, members of the Baltimore Teachers Union voted against accepting either a 6.8 percent pay cut or an eight-day furlough.

    Copeland's options

    Copeland said yesterday that if the current proposal is rejected, she would prefer to impose the 6.8 percent pay cut and fight a legal challenge by unions in court.

    If the issue dragged on in court, she said, she would then be forced to begin layoffs.

    But she said she would seek board approval before she took any action.

    Although union leaders stood with O'Malley and Copeland when the latest proposal was announced Tuesday in what appeared to be a show of unity, union support seemed to be wavering yesterday.

    The Baltimore Teachers Union executive board decided last night to remain neutral on how members should vote.

    The BTU, which represents teachers and aides, is the largest of the unions.

    Glenard S. Middleton, president of AFSCME Local 44, was in New Orleans and Miami yesterday, and said he would not actively campaign for O'Malley's plan among his members.

    "They have to vote their pocketbooks," Middleton said of his 1,300-strong union, which represents school custodians, bus drivers and grounds crew workers. "The final decision rests with the membership."

    Middleton said the school board dampened his enthusiasm for the proposal Tuesday night when it failed to approve a tentative contract with his and another union that represents school employees, the City Union of Baltimore.

    Yesterday, the mayor's office worked to build support for the plan through a mass e-mailing of the proposal's details to teachers and other schools employees.

    O'Malley, who spearheaded the new plan, said he was confident teachers would vote to accept the temporary salary cut to help the school system remain financially solvent.

    "I appreciate their hard work in one of the toughest jobs in America to help improve education for our kids," O'Malley said. "We have to ask them to help once again by deferring 3.5 percent of their pay."

    'Education at stake'

    At a press conference yesterday, Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city senators, and Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairman of the city House delegation, urged teachers to embrace the proposal.

    "We must remember that our children's education is at stake," McFadden said. The loss of 1,200 teachers "would devastate our children."

    Marriott said she thought O'Malley had gone "as far as fiscally possible."

    Teachers appeared to be widely divided on the compromise yesterday.

    John Casey, a field representative for the teachers union, visited several schools to talk to teachers.

    He said that teachers on both sides of the issue feel strongly about it, and that he expects a high turnout today.

    "It is a mixed bag," Casey said. "People are frustrated [that the school board] put the pressure on the teachers to make a decision.

    "We have a contract that should be left intact."

    Payback important

    But, Casey said, some union members will vote for the 3.5 percent pay cut if it will save jobs.

    He said the fact that the teachers would be paid back the money next year is important.

    The Baltimore Teachers Union vote will be held from noon to 4 p.m. today at the Baltimore Convention Center.

    Teachers and teachers' aides may enter through the entrance at Pratt and Howard streets.

    Free parking will be available in a lot at 200 W. Lombard St., and in a garage at Pratt and Howard.

    City schools will close at 12:30 today to allow for the voting.

    The City Union of Baltimore will vote at Harford Heights Elementary, and AFSCME 44 will vote at Lake Clifton High School.

    Sun staff writer Ivan Penn contributed to this article.

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