Thousands of angry Baltimore schoolteachers and aides voted overwhelmingly to reject a 3.5 percent cut in salaries yesterday - a decision that could trigger even deeper pay cuts across the city school system or possible mass layoffs to ease a financial crisis that has been simmering for months.
Nearly three-quarters of the more than 5,200 Baltimore Teachers Union members who cast ballots at the Baltimore Convention Center voted against a proposal that would have helped the system meet its budget goals this school year and still pay down part of a crushing $58 million cumulative deficit.
"It is arrogance when they want to strap the people on the front lines working with children," said Syvilla Woods, a teacher at William H. Lemmel Middle School. "There is enough wealth and know-how in this city that a solution could have been found before now."
Teachers were so irate about being asked to take the pay cut that many have already called in sick for today, forcing schools chief executive officer Bonnie S. Copeland to delay the start of classes two hours.
"We will be making a decision by 8 a.m. to see if we have enough teachers and food service workers and all employees that are critical to the operation of the schools," she said.
Copeland said she was surprised and disappointed by the BTU vote - 3,824 against the plan and 1,402 in favor - and is weighing her next move. She intends to discuss with the nine-member school board what to do to balance this year's budget and reduce the deficit.
Earlier in the week, Copeland had said that if the proposal was rejected, her only choices would be to impose a 6.8 percent pay cut or lay off 1,000 to 1,200 employees - mostly teachers.
"I would still prefer not to do layoffs, that's for sure," Copeland said yesterday. "We are still in the process of conferring with the board. We certainly want to be of one mind on this."
Public meeting soon
Board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch said the board would meet in public session as soon as can be arranged, possibly as early as tomorrow.
Copeland said yesterday that she would make a decision next week: "The longer we delay, the worse it gets for all of us."
The BTU was joined yesterday in rejecting the pay cut proposal by another union that represents school workers, the City Union of Baltimore. The leader of AFSCME 44, the third union that voted yesterday, said his members voted "in solidarity" with the teachers but declined to say how the vote went.
The vote by teachers and aides was the second time in less than a week that the union has spurned an offer to avoid the threatened layoffs. Last Friday, the BTU rejected a 6.8 percent pay cut or an eight-day furlough.
Earlier this week, Mayor Martin O'Malley, along with Copeland and union leaders, fashioned a compromise in which the city would have lent $8 million to the schools if school employee unions accepted the more modest pay cut. That pay reduction, intended to save the system $8 million, would have begun immediately and would have been repaid to employees from February 2005 to June 2005.
O'Malley, in a news conference last night in Annapolis, said that the city school system is a partnership between the city and state as a result of 1997 legislation and called on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to meet the city halfway in solving the schools' problems.
"All of us have responsibility for getting us out of this," O'Malley said. "I would hope the governor might step up. I'm somewhat exasperated. ... If the system goes bankrupt, it will fall to the state."
O'Malley said the $8 million he offered from the city's rainy day fund to help avert layoffs is not being taken off the table.
"I'm still willing to do that as part of a comprehensive solution, but the comprehensive solution we had was voted down," he said.
State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said yesterday that she was "saddened" by the vote.
"I think certainly the city government made a very good-faith effort," Grasmick said. "I do think that if the magnitude of the layoffs must take place to prevent insolvency ... it will have a very serious impact on the students of Baltimore City."
Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said he also hoped the rejected proposal wouldn't mean more layoffs. Close to 800 employees have already been given pink slips because of the deficit.
"We think the administration needs to take another hard look at this before they do layoffs," Hamilton said.
Copeland said many teachers seemed misinformed about how much the pay cut would have been or how long their salaries would have been reduced - which, she said, could be to blame for the proposal's failure.
But teachers said yesterday that they turned down the proposal mainly because they were angry about being asked to give up part of their pay to erase a deficit they didn't create.
"There can't be any further bailout by the teachers," said BTU President Marietta English in a news conference after the vote.
She said the union membership was making it clear in the nearly 3-to-1 vote that "we will not give up any money. ... We have given enough."
Copeland and top administrators had pledged to take the same pay cut as the workers. In the school chief's case, that would have amounted to $2,585.
If school officials impose a steeper 6.8 percent pay cut on workers - a breach of union contracts - union leaders have vowed to fight the decision in court.
If the issue were to drag on in court, Copeland said, she would then be forced to begin layoffs. But she said she would seek board approval before she took any action.
Impact on children
"I'm disappointed," said Del. Salima S. Marriott, chairman of the city's House delegation. "At this point I don't foresee a way out. The teachers have indicated that they are not responsible. But anybody who knows me knows I look at the children. They are the ones who will be most impacted today and in the future."
Before the vote yesterday, Brian Bookman, a first-grade teacher at Carter G. Woodson Elementary School, had already made up his mind to vote "no."
"It hasn't changed," Bookman said. "We couldn't afford to take the contract when they said we'd get a 6.8 percent pay cut, and we can't afford the 3.5 percent cut now. Our budgets are frozen. There are no field trips, nothing. Teachers have to buy their own supplies."
Bookman, who has taught at Woodson for six years, said it was ridiculous that school officials have asked teachers to make financial sacrifices. He said O'Malley's offer to lend the beleaguered school system $8 million was too little too late.
"He took a stand, yes, but it's an election year, so it's a political move," Bookman said.
Council President Sheila Dixon said she understood workers' frustrations but was still disappointed.
"I had hoped they would have taken the deal so we would not have to disrupt the classroom," Dixon said, adding that the vote will hurt the city because parents might start to move to surrounding counties to escape the city school system.
"Hopefully, we can try to get things back on track," she said. "But I don't know what more we can do."
'Millions' for theater
Jacquelyn Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Dickey Hill Elementary, said more can be done. She was one of many teachers who said they were tired of paying for basic classroom supplies out of their own pockets.
"They can spend millions of dollars on the Hippodrome [theater], and there seems to be money for keeping elephants in the zoo, but we don't have money for paper and pencils," Johnson said.
Sun staff writers Mike Bowler, Doug Donovan, Michael Dresser, David Nitkin, Ivan Penn and Laurie Willis contributed to this article.
What comes next
The Baltimore school board is expected to meet in public session as early as tomorrow to discuss what action to take next to achieve $16 million in savings this school year and help pay down a $58 million cumulative deficit.
Among the options:
Lay off up to 1,200 employees, most of them teachers.
Impose a 6.8 percent pay cut for employees for 20 weeks - the remainder of the school year. School employee unions have said they would challenge such a pay cut in court.
Combine a pay cut and layoffs.