Council panel grills Thornton but OKs budget for schools

City Council signed off Friday on the Baltimore public schools budget, with both the council and school officials pledging to communicate better in the coming year. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Members of the City Council's budget committee told Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton on Friday how unhappy they are about layoffs, but ultimately approved the city's portion of the system's $1.3 billion budget for next year.

The committee had grilled lower-level school officials Tuesday about why 59 school-based employees were losing their jobs when panel members had been told the reduction of 159 positions would affect only headquarters personnel.


Thornton told committee members that some of the people laid off from those jobs had "bumping" rights under union contracts that allowed them to claim jobs in the schools held by employees with less seniority. It was essentially the same explanation his subordinates gave Tuesday, but the panel gave Thornton a more respectful hearing.

The schools chief said he had done all he could to keep the council informed and to minimize the number of layoffs necessary after a $100 million budget shortfall and a 50 percent cut in one of the state's education aid formulas.


"I've done exactly what I said we would do," Thornton told the committee. He said he had submitted a "kids' budget," balanced and on time, despite the challenges.

The school board approved a reduction of 159 positions in the system's central office in response to the shortfall and the loss of about $11 million in expected state aid. After hearing from Thornton, the council committee ratified Baltimore's $258 million contribution to the budget, which is largely funded by the state.

Seeking to put the budget in context, Thornton said the systemwide layoffs amounted to about 0.6 percent of the workforce.

Councilman Eric T. Costello subjected Thornton to the most aggressive questioning, pressing him for details about when he knew there would be layoffs in the schools and when his staff told the council.

"The problem for me is the lack of communication and accountability," Costello said. But his questions were left in the air as Thornton agreed to provide a timeline at later date.

In some cases, council members appeared less concerned about the layoffs than about complaints from constituents about popular and high-performing school employees losing their jobs. Their positions will be filled by "surplus" workers from headquarters.

At Tuesday's meeting, council members openly second-guessed the layoffs of specific employees, but Thornton insisted he would not get into personnel decisions. When Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke began to quiz chief human capital officer Lisa Grillo about a particular case at the Monarch Academy, Thornton turned to Grillo and barked "No personnel," cutting off that line of questioning.

Several committee members expressed distaste for the outcome but acknowledged their legal inability to amend the spending plan and the need to approve it before the budget year begins July 1.

"We know as a council we have no choice but to approve this and move this forward," said Councilman Brandon Scott.

In the final vote, only Councilmen James B. Kraft and Warren Branch dissented. Branch said he was representing his constituents' opposition to the layoffs. Kraft expressed dismay over the performance of the system, rattling off statistics about the dismal performance of the high schools in his Southeast Baltimore district.

"Why would we ever want to give people money to do this?" he asked.

However, committee chairwoman Helen Holton saw signs of progress, saying that under Thornton the system had made a 180-degree turn from its unresponsiveness in previous years.


"We are a long way from where we were," Holton said

The Budget and Appropriations Committee's 5-2 vote sends the budget to the full council for its expected approval Monday.

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