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Thornton tells lawmakers city schools will lay off 100 central office staff

Thornton tells lawmakers city schools will lay off 100 central office staff

Baltimore city schools CEO Gregory Thornton told state lawmakers Friday that about 100 employees will lose their jobs at the end of the school year in his plan to close a $108 million deficit.

During a briefing Friday with the city delegation — whose members pressed him on the district's recent controversies over finances and school safety — Thornton outlined some of the $63 million in savings he identified publicly last month.

“The message behind the list is that there have been many hard decisions in city schools so that our young people get the standard of care that they need,” Thornton told lawmakers.

Part of his "standard of care" is having an art teacher in every school and adding middle school athletics. He will help fund what he calls "lead teachers" that he is requiring a handful of the district's most struggling schools to have. Last month, Thornton said he was still attempting to find money for those initiatives.

In interviews with The Baltimore Sun, Thornton has said that layoffs were imminent but declined to provide a number.

He said the number of employees presented Friday was the result of an audit he hired a Dallas consulting firm to conduct to find efficiencies at the central office, where about 1,000 people work.

Thornton said some employees could fill vacant positions, though he has said he plans to eliminate virtually all of those.

The district's budget hole included a $72 million structural deficit, and $36.5 million less from the state than officials had anticipated. Thornton said that the cost of salaries and benefits such as health care were among the biggest budget challenges.

Thornton also has said that more than 200 educators and staff in the district's “surplus” — meaning they are still paid by the school system but don't have permanent placements — would be cut. Classroom teachers and school staff also could be written out of school budgets because the district did not increase per-pupil funding to cover cost-of-living adjustments.

But when pressed on how he would address other issues, such as the amount of leave employees were cashing out when they leave the district, Thornton evaded the questions.

A Baltimore Sun analysis of salary data found that the district paid out $42 million in additional compensation in 2014, which officials said was driven by policies that allowed teachers, principals and central office administrators to cash out sick and vacation days. The system also paid out an additional $4 million in overtime last year, the Sun found.

Del. Maggie McIntosh, who has been leading the charge to restore state money to the school system but warned it was an uphill battle, pressed Thornton for “overt steps” he was taking to curb the amount of money the district pays for unused sick and vacation days.

“It’s my own belief that it’s got to change,” she said.

Thornton said that the numbers reported by The Sun were "glaring" but reflected payments over time, and that they were consistent with previous years.

The records supplied by the school system reflected payouts between January and December 2014.

Some of the compensation outlined also included back pay, severance packages, bonuses and stipends. The school system declined to answer specific questions about the compensation data it provided.

Thornton told lawmakers Friday that that the majority of the payouts were in accordance with labor agreements, though some of the highest payouts went to administrators who were not affiliated with a union and are allowed to cash out more sick and vacation time than teachers and principals.

Thornton also said that the district was being “overt in positioning ourselves for an audit on healthcare.”

He said he was looking to reopen negotiations with the district's unions to save on healthcare costs this year. He indicated that leave pay may be on the table when contracts come up for renewal.

Some lawmakers took the opportunity to press Thornton on his recently released plan to remove the vast majority of city school police officers from assignments in schools and redeploy them in communities.

The measure comes after the city delegation killed a bill that would have changed state law to allow the officers to be armed while patrolling school buildings during the day.

City school officials said the new plan would allow the officers to keep their weapons — though officers in seven large city high schools would be unarmed — while also allowing police to have a role in helping bring dropouts and truants back to school.

Many lawmakers said they didn't understand the plan, nor the need for it.

“I’m confused," said Del. Brooke Lierman. "I don’t know why we needed a new strategy when we didn’t change any laws.”

Lierman joined other lawmakers in criticizing the fact that the district failed to get public input from the parents and community members about the new plan — repeating a mistake the district made in seeking to arm school police without first informing the public.

The plan was announced via a Powerpoint presentation to the press and in meetings with school principals on Tuesday.  It takes effect on April 13.

Del. Cheryl D. Glenn said she wanted a detailed plan in writing and a follow-up meeting with Thornton at the end of the school year. 

“It’s hard to fathom this new redeployment system," Glenn said. “I’m concerned about the school safety issue, and I want to make sure our students are safe.”

erica.green@baltsun.com

twitter.com/EricaLG

 

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