Baltimore school officials are seeking to relax hiring rules to make applicants with nonviolent misdemeanor convictions — such as drug possession and burglary — eligible for jobs renovating school buildings.
The proposal comes as the school district embarks on a $1 billion plan to renovate and rebuild more than two dozen schools over the next decade. The plan is expected to create about 5,000 construction and administrative jobs, and city officials hope that many are filled by Baltimore residents.
Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton said easing the prohibition against people with a criminal record "addresses the need of a community. They want to come to work," he said.
School districts in Maryland are required under state law to adopt hiring criteria to ensure that employees with criminal records have limited access to students. The city system has adopted rules that disqualify most applicants with criminal records that date back at least five years.
Some observers said that the proposal to relax those criteria may not sit well with parents and that it must be thoroughly vetted. A public forum on the proposal will be held Sept. 10.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the council's education committee, commended the idea but said the district should also continue to focus on hiring Baltimore residents who don't have records.
If the district does loosen restrictions, she said, workers with criminal records should only be allowed on construction sites that are "exclusively empty and certainly not in any school buildings where students are located."
City schools parent Trish Pilla, who serves on the parent-teacher board of Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, said she expects that parents will ask tough questions of school officials. She said she's seeking more information before forming an opinion.
"I would hope there is some vigorous, thoughtful discussion about what relaxing means before any policy is confirmed," Pilla said. "I am confident there will be."
Mignon Anthony, executive director of the 10-year construction plan dubbed the 21st Century Initiative, said the number of students in schools where contractors are working would vary.
In some cases, students would attend classes at schools during construction; in other cases students would go to the school under renovation only to catch a bus to another. And some students would work closely with workers as apprentices or interns on school construction sites.
Some contractors subject to the new hiring criteria would be in architecture, engineering and administrative jobs — positions that could require them to be in and out of buildings.
"We really tried to strike a balance between the need to create jobs, and also making sure that our role and responsibilities in bringing people onto sites which can be occupied by students and not occupied by students, can be addressed," Anthony said.
The workforce proposal was devised by the school system, the Mayor's Office of Employment Development and the Maryland Stadium Authority, which is helping to manage the district's building plan.
The proposal doesn't need the approval of the school board, and school officials said they plan to brief the City Council, which doesn't have purview over school policy.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has said the construction plan would not only result in improved classroom and learning spaces for city children but also jobs for residents. "Ensuring that projects like this create jobs for our residents is how my administration has reduced unemployment," she said in a statement.
City officials pushed to widen the applicant pool, citing concerns that local residents wouldn't benefit from the massive construction project because so many would be ineligible for the jobs. Baltimore has higher incarceration and unemployment rates than other parts of the state.
Unemployment and access to jobs have become a major focus of public initiatives following the death of Freddie Gray. The unrest in April after Gray suffered a severe spinal cord injury in a police transport van highlighted the city's plights, including economic disparities.
"Many people say some communities are looking for a handout," Thornton said. "I meet a lot of people who are looking for a hand up."
Anthony said that just loosening hiring restrictions for drug offenses could have a big impact.
According to the Baltimore Police Department, of the 41,113 arrests officers made in 2014, 9,330 — or 23 percent — were for misdemeanor drug charges, the largest single category of arrests.
"That alone is going to bring in a lot more applicants than if we had not tried to change the nonviolent standards," Anthony said.
Under the current hiring policy, the district does not hire applicants convicted of violent felonies, including those related to child abuse and sex crimes, applicants convicted of a violent or nonviolent felony within the past 10 years, or those convicted of a violent or nonviolent misdemeanor within the past five years.
The policy treats probations before judgment, which allow offenders to wipe their records clean after completing probation, as convictions.
The proposal would allow the hiring of applicants with nonviolent misdemeanor convictions in the past five years, including burglary and theft, breaking and entering, unlawful entry and possession of a controlled dangerous substance or paraphernalia. Those with probation before judgment also would be eligible.
School officials also are exploring whether applicants with up to two violent misdemeanor convictions — such as battery and second-degree assault — should be considered for employment on a case-by-case basis.
But Anthony said that "no one is feeling good" about how to gauge the seriousness of incidents that fall into that category. School board members expressed an interest in creating an appeals process in those cases.
Anthony said the proposal has been vetted by the school district's lawyers, and that officials compared it to how other districts handle hiring. She said hiring criteria vary across the state and nation.
While officials considered only relaxing rules for workers at sites where students wouldn't be present, Anthony said they decided to have one set of criteria because applicants could work at different sites.
The district plans to work with the city's office of employment development, which will pre-screen city residents.