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Deficit to force job cuts in city schools 69 positions targeted; furloughs considered; Tessaract cut sought


A deficit once dismissed as "routine" is now forcing Baltimore's public school officials to cut dozens of administrative and support positions and to consider furloughs of up to 10 days for all workers, including teachers, officials said yesterday.

The city school system is also seeking a cut of $10 million, or about 25 percent, from Educational Alternatives Inc. in its contract to run nine "Tesseract" schools this year -- savings that would be applied to reduce a deficit that could balloon to $31 million, they said.

Under current proposals, 69 jobs would be abolished -- 26 that are currently vacant and another 43 that would involve eliminating current employees, officials said. Another 50 positions could be cut by January, they said.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke -- who two months ago described the deficit, then $27 million, as "routine" and something "we go through every year" -- yesterday said that the shortfall means the school system would not "be able to pay for everything we want to do."

"I've recommended that the superintendent define what is essential. He has the very difficult task of trying to distinguish between what is essential and what is important. We'll keep what is essential," the mayor said.

Furloughs -- days of unpaid leave -- are being considered for all employees of the school system, which has 10,900 full-time workers, about 7,000 of whom are teachers, officials said.

If they are imposed, they would begin with "noninstructional days" such as the Friday after Thanksgiving, when no classes are scheduled, in an effort to minimize the effect on students, said Henry J. Raymond, the school system's chief financial officer.

"It won't help morale, but it's short-term savings," he said.

Union officials were furious at the idea.

"Our people started this year with halfway decent morale for a change," said Irene B. Dandridge, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, whose members received a 5 percent pay increase this summer, the biggest in years. "This would be a crushing blow for us."

Chester D. Wilton, president of the City Union of Baltimore, agreed. "That's a complete paycheck," said Mr. Wilton, whose union represents some 400 school secretaries, computer operators and other support personnel who are paid every two weeks.

Three years ago, all city workers were furloughed for 2 1/2 days as a cost-saving measure to cope with a mid-year cut in state aid. The city later agreed to give the workers back 60 percent of the pay they lost to settle a lawsuit brought by three unions that challenged the furloughs.

The current school deficit -- roughly 5 percent of the system's $647 million annual budget -- is made up principally of negotiated pay raises for teachers and aides that are more than twice those originally budgeted, and extra costs for special-education services, which the city is under a court order to improve.

$27 million shortfall

Besides $14 million for teacher raises, another $6 million of the deficit can be attributed to cuts in state aid to force management improvements, and $7 million is required to upgrade special-education services.

The gap could rise from $27 million to $31 million this year, with an additional $4 million for the installation of a computerized system to track special-education students, officials said. However, it was unclear yesterday whether that system would be needed before the end of the fiscal year, leaving open the possibility that the cost could be deferred into the next year's budget.

Already this year, the school system has frozen vacancies, eliminated overtime and halted the purchase of equipment.

As of yesterday, the dismantling of four small departments was proposed. They include the system's Research and Evaluation Office, which analyzes student test results; the Horticultural Skill Center, which teaches landscaping; and the lobbying and liaison offices, which would be transferred to the mayor's staff.

Originally, pink slips were to be sent this week, with layoffs scheduled to take effect Nov. 17, but schools Superintendent Walter G. Amprey asked for more time to review the proposed cuts.

"People wanted to look at the plan to make counterproposals. There was concern to try to minimize the number of positions scheduled to be abolished," Mr. Raymond said.

In any case, Mr. Raymond said, the system hopes to "minimize the impact on schools. For example, at this time, we are not trying to shift administrative functions to the schools because we can't support them here."

But he added: "I think it would be naive to believe that reductions at central administration do not have an indirect impact on the schools. They will. We cannot provide the type of customer service that we want given cuts of this kind."

Mr. Schmoke denied that the reductions contradicted a pledge he made during the Democratic primary campaign that he would not make spending cuts that would affect schoolchildren.

"I think we'll be able to avoid impacting the classrooms, but I don't think a freeze on hiring and reductions of this kind can be implemented without affecting future spending on the schools," he said.

Cut in EAI contract sought

The request for a $10 million cut in the $43 million contract with EAI was contained in a written "final offer" to the Minneapolis-based company sent by city Finance Director William R. Brown Jr.

"The offer was based on what it would cost us to operate the schools ourselves," Mr. Brown said. EAI has until Oct. 27 to respond, he said.

Under the terms of the contract, the city may cancel the agreement with EAI with 90 days notice.

An EAI spokesman said last night that the company received the letter Monday. "We're hopeful that a reasonable decision can be reached soon," said Chris Bauer.

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