Baltimore City Schools will lay off about 450 temporary employees and freeze hiring throughout the school system in an attempt to reduce a $21 million budget gap for the current fiscal year.
The temporary staff positions include many full-time employees in schools, including some teachers and teacher aides who help instruct classes. The layoffs will trim about $3.7 million in spending by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she is taking the steps now because of uncertainty about whether the federal government will provide more funding to help school districts during the coronavirus pandemic.
While the $21 million gap between expenditures and revenues for this year is not a large percentage of a $1.1 billion budget, Santelises said, expenses could increase in the coming months as she tries to implement a model that brings students back a couple of days a week and maintains online instruction.
In addition, she said, it is unclear whether the state or city will make budget cuts.
“I am looking down the road and we have to start now,” she said.
Nevertheless, the cuts will hit schools hard. Some schools will lose more than half a dozen employees, some of whom are teaching. Anthony Avery, a computer science teacher at Hamilton Elementary/Middle School, is one of the teachers who has been informed he will lose his job on Oct. 2.
Avery teaches grades one through eight and provides hours of extra help to students and their parents who are struggling to use the technology. His loss, he believes, will be particularly hard for his school because they are operating online and he has provided tech support for the building. When he was hired in February, he said, some of his eighth grade students didn’t know how to type.
This school year, Avery said, students must be able to navigate all of their education online with multiple steps to signing on, participating in classroom discussion and completing assignments.
“They don’t have a competent person to help them," Avery said. "At the end of teaching, I am willing to sit another two or three hours to help students and parents get comfortable with what they are doing.”
Particularly frustrating, he said, is seeing city schools cut budgets for students who never have enough resources, especially compared to wealthier districts.
If Congress provides additional aid to states and local governments or school districts, Santelises said she could rehire some of those now being laid off. With no assurances that money will be coming, she is taking what she believes is fiscally responsible action.
“I can’t just sit here and act as though something is going to save us,” Santelises said. “You can’t just run up the expenses with your fingers crossed.”
She attributed the budget gap to several factors, including the reduction in federal reimbursements for feeding fewer children in the schools during the pandemic, as well as additional costs for laptops and internet for students.
A Hamilton Elementary School parent, Kate Sam, said she understands the budgetary issues the school system faces, but she believes local and state governments should prioritize children during a pandemic. One of the Hamilton staff being laid off is a teaching assistant who helps with small groups during live teaching online.
“I think it is devastating for the kids,” she said. “It is shocking and awful that this is happening just into the school year when the kids are just becoming comfortable."