The Baltimore Teachers Union, long a bit player in city school affairs, suddenly is in a lead role, thrust there by thousands of members who delivered a message yesterday: We're fed up.
Nearly three-quarters of the BTU's member teachers voted at the Convention Center to reject the city's proposal that they accept a 3.5 percent pay cut to help ease a school budget crisis.
After the votes were counted in early evening, about two dozen teachers stood in a circle in front of the building, held hands and sang "We Shall Overcome" and its education version, "We Will Teach the Children."
Veteran teachers said yesterday's gathering of about 5,200, most of whom voted in the first 90 minutes, was the largest show of teachers since a strike over wages and working conditions in February 1974. Teachers effectively shut down the system then for a month, but they gained little in the ultimate settlement, and the BTU and a rival union lost bargaining rights for calling an illegal strike.
Stung by criticism from disappointed teachers, the BTU was fairly quiet over the next three decades - even as the management of the school system underwent sweeping changes.
Anger that teachers were being asked to sacrifice more has rekindled militancy.
"The mood is the same as it was 30 years ago," said Neil Ross, a BTU field staff member who taught at what was Lombard Junior High in 1974. "The anger is the same. There's the same feeling of helplessness."
When Marietta English, president of the union, arrived at the polling place yesterday, she knew immediately the outcome of the members' vote: "I could see the fury in their eyes."
Linda J. Eberhart, Maryland's 2001 Teacher of the Year and a member of the BTU executive board, agreed. "There's so much distrust that it will take years to repair the damage," said Eberhart, a 35-year city teacher who is now at Mount Royal Elementary School.
As they had in their first vote last week at the Poly-Western auditorium, the teachers firmly rejected a proposal that most felt penalized them for the mismanagement of others. The theme at both meetings was the same. Despite substantial, and some would say long overdue, raises over the past few years, teachers were in no mood to give up any financial gains.
"Teachers already give back every day, so to ask them to give more is to ask too much," said English after the vote count.
Teacher after teacher told of dipping into personal funds to pay for basic supplies. John Huffman, a French teacher at Southwestern High, said he had purchased his own copying machine "because the one we had was always broken." Eberhart estimated her yearly out-of-pocket expenses at $4,000.
The mood at the vote was part family reunion, part revival. Teachers embraced who hadn't seen each other for years. Many held signs of the season.
"We don't have the heart to take a pay cut," read the Valentine displayed by Michele Grady Johnson, a third-grade teacher at Frederick Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore.
"It's almost like being with your family," said Vera Hall Skinner, a fifth-grade teacher at Dickey Hill Elementary. "All we have is one another."
Sun staff writer Liz Bowie contributed to this article.