Defying a threat from Baltimore's schools chief, angry teachers and aides decisively rejected yesterday a deficit-reduction proposal that would have cut salaries or imposed furloughs - measures school officials say are necessary to prevent up to 1,200 layoffs.
Bonnie S. Copeland, the schools' chief executive officer, said she was "disappointed" by the vote. She would not immediately say what action she will take next.
Nearly half of the more than 4,200 Baltimore Teachers Union rank-and-file who cast ballots, 2,161, turned down both of the school system's suggested remedies; 1,582 voted to accept an eight-day furlough; and 503 said they would take a 6.8 percent pay cut.
Copeland had said that up to 1,200 city school workers - most of them teachers - could be laid off if employee unions did not take one of the options to cut payroll expenses.
"They were angry about even having to vote on this issue," said teachers union President Marietta English, noting yesterday's slippery roads. "But they came because that's how strong they felt about this issue."
The election turnout was so high, traffic was snarled for hours around Baltimore Polytechnic Institute on Cold Spring Lane, where the voting was held.
Lauri Wilson, a special education teacher at Digital Harbor High School, said yesterday was the first time she had voted on any union issue in the 16 years she has worked for the school system. Her decision to vote "none of the above" was a practical one. "I can't afford either one, literally," Wilson said. "I'm living paycheck-to-paycheck."
Others who voted down Copeland's alternatives said they were symbolically telling school system officials that they would not be held responsible for a $58 million cumulative deficit.
Teachers and other employees have argued that the deficit is the result of administrative mismanagement and workers should not bear the brunt of fixing the problem.
"If we take a pay cut, we tell the administration it's OK to do what they're doing," said Skyler Cooper, a language arts teacher at Harlem Park Middle School. "If we just lay down and take this, then we're saying they're right."
The next move appears to belong to Copeland, who is scheduled to make a recommendation for cutting expenses to the school board at its meeting Tuesday.
The mood inside the school auditorium where yesterday's vote took place was one of anger and defiance, teachers said.
"People are really mad," said Shannon Stormont, a third-grade teacher at Charles Carroll Barrister Elementary School, who voted against the two cost-saving options.
"The two sentiments were 'It's my money; I'm keeping it,'" said Poly government teacher Dennis Jutras, who also voted against the cuts, "and 'Punish, punish, punish those who are at fault.'"
Leading up to the union vote, teachers and other school employees have complained about having to take pay cuts or face layoffs because of a financial crisis they say they did not create.
School officials have blamed the deficit on years of overspending and fiscal mismanagement. Copeland, who took over in July, wants to eliminate the deficit by 2005 and has said she needs to reduce spending by $16 million by the end of June to stay on target for that goal. To do that, she has asked for concessions from the five unions representing school employees. The BTU is the largest.
About 900 members of the 1,300-strong union that represents the system's bus drivers and food service, grounds crew and maintenance workers also cast ballots on the issue yesterday. More than 800 voted to reject Copeland's proposals.
"They are not to blame for this crisis," said Glenard S. Middleton, president of AFSCME Local 44, after the overwhelming vote at Lake Clifton/Eastern High School. "They feel that [school officials] are trying to balance the budget on their backs.
"Reducing [workers'] pay does not give them anywhere near the amount of money they need to reduce this deficit."
At a news conference after the AFSCME and BTU votes, Copeland said she would take the weekend to consider the system's next steps. She has promised to move swiftly to reduce the deficit, hoping to convince the state that the system has its financial house in order and is deserving of additional funding from Annapolis.
Yesterday, Baltimore's six-member Senate delegation held a noon news conference criticizing how the city school system handled its finances in the past. The senators said they will push for legislation requiring the system to have a balanced budget each year and might introduce other bills to ensure greater accountability.
"When there was an expectation that there were going to be layoffs, they didn't do it; when there was an expectation of furloughs, they didn't do it," said Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, referring to previous school leaders and board members. "We're going to demand a balanced budget this year."
About a dozen parents called for a criminal investigation of the school system in a letter sent this week to state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli and Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr.
The group is calling itself Advocates for Reform at the Top (ARAT).
"Is that a metaphor? I don't know. There must be a rat somewhere," said group member Bob Heck, a Maryland Public Television host and father of a Roland Park Elementary School kindergartner.
Some Annapolis lawmakers said yesterday that they might consider issuing subpoenas of former school officials to get an explanation of the system's snowballing deficit.
Many teachers said school and political leaders should be able to find other ways to pay down the deficit instead of asking school employees to shoulder the burden.
"I think they have the money - if they want to spend it on children," said Danny Rosvold, a history teacher at Northwestern High School. "If they don't want to spend the money on children, this is what happens."
Rosvold was one who voted for furloughs; he said he didn't want to see anyone lose jobs.
Earlier this week, members of the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, which represents about 500 principals and other school managers, also voted to accept furloughs.
Sun staff writers Ivan Penn and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.