Teachers stage 'sick-out' at Baltimore school. (WJZ)
Class was in session early Thursday at the East Baltimore school where a majority of teachers called out sick en masse on Wednesday in what city schools officials said appeared to be a protest against potential layoffs and budget cuts.
Students arrived Thursday at Tench Tilghman Elementary-Middle School, where parents said many were turned away a morning earlier amid a bulk of teacher absences.
Deon Fisher arrived late with his 7-year-old son because, like several parents, said he was unsure if the school would reopen Thursday. He said he expected the sick-out to last several days.
"They didn't let us know anything," he said.
Karima Witherspoon, whose four children attend Tench Tilghman, also volunteers at the school and said she supports the teachers whom she works with regularly.
"We see everything that they go through. They should get more money," she said of the teachers. She said the teachers are what make the schools.
She said she and many parents are concerned about potential layoffs. She said she was planning a rally at noon Friday at the district headquarters on North Avenue to protest the cuts.
Though several parents supported the sick-out, many expressed concern about the disruption to classes.
Sonya Myers, who dropped off her 5-year-old daughter Thursday, said she supported the sick-out but wanted the parents to receive some notice beforehand so they could make plans. She said she saw many young children walking home alone after they were turned away from school Wednesday morning. Many parents, she said, just dropped the children off, drove off and did not realize teachers called in sick.
She said many parents had to struggle to find childcare in a pinch.
School system administrators condemned the absences in a statement Wednesday afternoon, while the Baltimore Teachers Union warned that it's illegal for teachers to strike.
"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.
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."
It wasn't immediately clear Thursday whether similar "sick-out" protests were planned for other schools in the city.
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 the 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, 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.
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.
Baltimore Sun reporters Tim Prudente, Carrie Wells and Sean Welsh contributed to this story.