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Lawmakers call for change on city schools leave pay

State and local lawmakers called on Baltimore school officials Monday to rein in policies and practices that led the district to pay employees $46 million last year in accrued leave, bonuses, overtime, stipends and other compensation.

The district made the payouts as it was logging a $72 million deficit that officials say will force the first layoffs in more than a decade.

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The salary information, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, comes to light as district readers and lawmakers rally to restore $36.5 million in state cuts back to the schools budget.

City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young said the district should change rules for new hires to limit payouts for unused vacation time when they leave the system. He said he doesn't believe they should be allowed to cash out sick time.

"I have some real concerns," Young said. "Going forward, the school board needs to figure out a system similar to the one [the city has] for new employees, where they cap the vacation."

Young emphasized that the City Council has no authority to tell schools CEO Gregory Thornton or the school board what to do. He said he was speaking as a "citizen and a taxpayer."

As state lawmakers prepare to debate the state budget, some said they anticipate the city's fiscal management will emerge as a bone of contention.

"I suspect that there will be increased scrutiny of the budget deal that's on the Senate floor," said Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat who has worked for the school system.

Ferguson said the district needs to reassess its policies. But he added that while the system can't be too generous with compensation packages, it also can't afford to miss out on attracting and retaining good educators.

"In the context of a multimillion deficit, we have to be careful with every penny," he said. "In tight budget times, we have to look everywhere to see where our policies are not aligned with our priorities."

Records show the largest payout last year went to former Interim CEO Tisha Edwards, who left the district after Thornton was hired with $217,000 in additional income.

Other outgoing cabinet members, each of whom was hired after 2007 and made more than $150,000, left with payouts that ranged from $13,446 to $76,104. That included $10,000 retention bonuses for staying on through the change of administration.

The district paid out $4 million in overtime last year, primarily to school police officers. The largest overtime payment was $49,000 to a school police officer.

Other payments included smaller stipends or cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and principals under their new contract.

The school system declined to provide a breakdown or answer any questions about additional earnings.

School officials said the payouts reflected generous leave policies that were established when the district lagged behind others in base pay.

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Some lawmakers said the district's budget would stay on their radar.

Del. Mary L. Washington, a member of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on education, said lawmakers would examine the fiscal operations of the school system thoroughly before next year's legislative session.

"I think there are some unintended consequences to the issue of getting rid of seniority in favor of merit pay only," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Thornton said leave policies were among the items he wants to renegotiate with the city's principals and teachers unions as he explores cost-savings measures.

He said he has hired consultants to reexamine roles and responsibilities in the central office, and a compensation study is also on the table.

He said he was surprised by the bonuses given to cabinet members. But under his administration, he said, such bonuses are "not part of the managerial direction that we intend to go in."

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the mayor was concerned about the payouts and "willing to support Dr. Thornton in any way that we can" to address them.

But spokesman Kevin Harris said the mayor does not believe the findings should complicate budget conversations in Annapolis.

"The school system's problems still don't excuse the fact that Gov. Hogan chose to make millions of cuts to education," he said. "It was right to restore funding, which never should have been cut."

A spokesman for Hogan declined to comment.

City school board President Shanaysha Sauls said the board has ordered new policies that align with other public entities.

Compared to neighboring districts, The Sun found, Baltimore allows employees to cash out much more leave time when they leave.

Year-round employees in the Baltimore Teachers Union can cash out at least 72 days. Principals can cash out up to 250 sick days when they leave. Unaffiliated employees, such as managers in the central office, can cash out up to 192 days — more than half a year's pay.

Baltimore County caps pay for unused leave time at 40 or 45 days, depending on the bargaining unit. Howard County caps it at 40 days. Neither district allows retirees to cash out unused sick leave. Anne Arundel County pays out sick leave annually, but only to employees with at least 15 years of service.

Del. Susan W. Krebs, a Carroll County Republican, said it appears the city school system hasn't re-examined its benefit package in light of its higher salary structure.

"They keep asking for more and more money and it doesn't seem as if they're using it very responsibly," she said. "We need to hold them accountable for it."

Sen. Richard S. Madaleno Jr., vice chairman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, said he is encouraged that district officials say they need to change policies, and hopes that also makes it into the conversations in Annapolis.

"The school board and the city, like other jurisdictions, should be making sure that all of their funding is spent wisely and that policies are consistently being updated to reflect the issues they are facing," the Montgomery County Democrat said. "I do worry if they're a convenient target."

Baltimore Sun reporters Luke Broadwater, Erin Cox and Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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