City schools pay $14 million overtime in four years

The cash-strapped Baltimore school system has paid more than $14 million in overtime over the past four years, mostly to its understaffed police force and hundreds of temporary employees who have filled gaps created by CEO Andrés Alonso's plan to shrink the central office.

According to salary information obtained by The Baltimore Sun, the district paid about $3.4 million to nearly 1,600 city school employees in 2011, a year when school budgets were cut because of rising personnel costs.

This comes after the district vowed more scrutiny of overtime costs, which peaked at $4.6 million in 2008 but have crept up steadily since 2009, when $2.7 million was paid.

"My initial impression of these numbers is that we have a lot of people working very hard on behalf of our city schools, and the education profession can't be considered a 9-to-5 job," said Neil Duke, president of the city school board. "But the district has to look at this because we're in tight financial times."

School officials said the overtime costs are mostly tied to student safety. The vast majority of overtime earners were city school police officers and operations staff who maintain the system's crumbling infrastructure.

"We have to curb overtime, but we can't do it and compromise kids' safety," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for the school system. "We are asking people to do more with less, and sometimes that can be done with a 40-hour week, and sometimes it can't be done. And when it can't be done, we have to pay people."

The top overtime earner in 2011 was Alonso's driver — a school police sergeant hired in 1975 who has worked as chauffeur to city school superintendents for two decades.

The sergeant, Ralph Askins, more than doubled his $76,819 wages, logging roughly $78,000 in overtime last year. He made more than Gov. Martin O'Malley, whose salary is $150,000, and about the same as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who makes $155,000. In addition, he earned more than the highest-paid educator in any city school.

Edwards said overtime remains an "expected expense for the system," which has a $1.3 billion budget, and doesn't put it financially at risk.

Baltimore County paid less overtime to its school employees last year — $2.7 million, according to a spokesman, who said the majority went to workers who deal with facilities emergencies such as custodians, grounds workers and maintenance workers. The county schools do not have their own police force.

City school officials said the overtime payments are the "cost of doing business." But an analysis of the salary information reflects the fact that Alonso's strategy of reducing administrative employees still carries a steep cost.

Since he arrived in 2007, Alonso has continued to chip away at the district's central office, promoting the move as a cost-saving measure as 1,600 full-time employees have left since 2008.

But while the number of full-time employees has decreased, the system has had to pay tens of thousands of dollars in overtime to salaried and hourly-rate staff, or heavily rely on temporary employees, who make between $7 and $41 an hour, plus overtime.

In 2008, when the schools chief began cutting the central office, there were 596 temporary employees working in the system who cost $53,600 in overtime. Last year, there were more than 1,184 temporary employees, who cost the system $193,000 in overtime. The highest overtime payout to a temporary employee was $24,419.

"Even though we've had to reduce the [full-time system's employees], there are times where we have to rely on people to fill gaps that the reduction has created," Edwards said. "We have to overextend people in many cases. But we have to be cognizant of how that is perceived."

Edwards said temporary employees offer cost savings because they are paid less in benefits and can be used on a flexible basis.

The overtime that teachers and principals received in 2011 was modest — a few hundred dollars each, which the system is required to pay in stipends for required activities such as professional development. The overtime earned by cafeteria workers and other support staff was in the single- and double-digits.

Salary data show that the driver position has historically incurred the most overtime costs. Askins has been paid $40 an hour under the schools chief and remained the highest overtime earner since Alonso's arrival, earning about $216,000 in overtime from 2008 to 2010.

Askins declined to comment about his earnings.

The driver is a long-standing perk that, in the region, is almost exclusive to Baltimore's superintendent.

Longtime state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick drove herself to and from most events in her three decades in that post. In his 12 years as Baltimore County superintendent, Joe A. Hairston has used a driver only when traveling to Washington and Annapolis.

A decade ago, the city school board defended the use and the salary of a driver for then-CEO Carmen Russo, though it acknowledged that the job's overtime costs needed to be limited.

Duke, president of the city school board, said the board retained a driver for Alonso because Askins was "specifically requested." He said Askins "is remarkably efficient, and he's trusted and widely respected throughout the district," given his long history serving city superintendents.

The schools chief is not only chauffeured to and from home, but anywhere he might travel in and out of the district, school officials said.

Duke said Askins also provides security, which the schools chief requires because "much of the work of the CEO takes place both after hours and in troubled parts of the city." Security is also a unique perk of the Baltimore superintendent.

The system also provides vehicles for Alonso — he received a new $30,000 Ford Explorer before his previous contract expired in June — and pays for its maintenance, gas and insurance. The superintendent also has his previous car at his disposal should he need it.

Under Alonso's contract, which paid him a base salary of $260,000 last year, he receives a $750 monthly stipend for unspecified transportation costs. Duke said the stipend covers "vehicles for other events where there wouldn't be coverage by a driver."

Rounding out the top five overtime earners was a facilities supervisor who made $40,665 in overtime, about half his annual salary, taking on added responsibilities in the schools' operations department. An office assistant at Calverton Elementary/Middle School logged $29,229 coming in on weekends to run additional programming at the school, which is undergoing turnaround efforts.

And a school police officer and sergeant ranked fourth and fifth, with $28,216 and $26,553, respectively, mostly for working community and sports events.

The Baltimore City School Police Force has142 sworn officers and operates year-round, 24 hours a day. It is responsible for staffing 204 schools and programs, in addition to sports and community events, meetings, plays and other requests. Most of the school systems in the Baltimore area do not have their own police forces.

The chief of the force, Marshall "Toby" Goodwin, said overtime is needed to cover all of the school events. He said that on any given Friday, about 10 to 15 games around the city each require at least two officers.

The department has not expanded at the rate that schools and sports programs have, Goodwin said.

The operations department — one of the largest and most crucial areas of the school system — also generated a large amount of overtime. As staffing has been cut in the past four years, the system has experienced natural disasters, snowstorms and the general wear of its aging infrastructure. The department oversees everything from school building maintenance to transportation.

"This shop is always on, and then we hope it doesn't snow or there's not an earthquake," said Edwards, the system's chief of staff.

She said that while school officials don't believe overtime is being abused, they do examine the costs.

"I'm not going to tell you that every single overtime of every single person is justified, because that's not true," Edwards said. "There are costs of doing business, and this is one of those times where we just need to make sure that those dollars are always being scrutinized."