Baltimore City athletic directors, coaches and referees received a double dose of good news yesterday when they collected more than $187,000 in late paychecks and learned that Ruth Jackson will return permanently to the athletics office, which should end the paperwork crisis that led to late payments.
Jackson was transferred to another office on Jan. 5 as part of a city schools shake-up in which 700 teachers and other staff members were laid off in an effort to ease the school system's $58 million deficit.
With Jackson gone after 23 years as an assistant in the office of athletics coordinator Bob Wade, the payment process broke down. The money was there, but the paperwork piled up.
No one else knew how to process the paperwork, said Wade, adding that Jackson had set up the system early in her career.
"It would be like Christmas to have her return to this office," Wade said. "She is the backbone. She's the right hand. It would mean an awful lot in terms of the day-to-day operation of this office."
After The Sun reported on Feb. 12 that athletic directors blamed her transfer for the delayed payments, city schools officials brought Jackson back temporarily.
In addition to working full days as a secretary in the National Academy Foundation at Lake Clifton, Jackson worked the weekend of Feb. 14-15 and eight weeknights to facilitate payments. She was paid overtime.
Yesterday, city schools spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt said Jackson would be returned to the office permanently.
"That's wonderful," said City College athletic director George Petrides. "She's done that job for so long, and she's very efficient."
Without Jackson, the backlog of payments owed to athletic directors, coaches and games officials had reached a total of $187,314.48, said Pyatt.
The athletic directors and staff coaches at the city's 20 high schools were supposed to get paid on Feb. 13, but some basketball referees had not been paid since mid-December.
Yesterday, athletic directors and staff coaches received their pay along with their regular teachers' salaries. Those payments totaled $112,279.93.
For most coaches, who received a third of their seasonal coaching stipend, that amounted to a little more than $1,000 each. Basketball coaches receive $3,374, and other coaches receive $3,013 for the season.
For athletic directors, whose $4,379 annual stipend is spread over nine months, the overdue payment was about $486 each.
Some emergency coaches, those not on staff within the city school system, received their checks Thursday, said Forest Park athletic director Obie Barnes. Basketball officials also began receiving checks Thursday, said Wayne Randall, who assigns referees to boys and girls basketball games in the city.
Emergency coaches were owed a total of $45,187.55. Game officials were owed $29,847.
"All the officials will be happy," Randall said about Jackson's return. "They know they're going to get paid if she comes back."
While Jackson's return solves one problem, athletic directors and coaches worry that the bus transportation problems that hampered the winter season might return once the spring season starts on March 22.
For the past few weeks, there have been no bus problems, but there have been fewer games as the season winds down.
"The buses have been sitting out waiting for us," said Dunbar athletic director Barbara Allen.
However, during the regular season, 64 basketball games were postponed because there weren't enough buses. Wrestling teams, swim teams and track teams weren't picked up for some of their meets, either.
Springs sports demand more buses, because there are eight sports offered, up from five in the winter season. There also are more games to be made up in the spring because of rain.
"With the kind of weather we have around here in the spring, there are going to be dates that will be closed out," said Poly athletic director Mark Schlenoff.
"You can call up for a bus and they say, 'Don't even think about it until late April or May.' The city rule is that you have to play on the next available date for both schools, but that's not the way it is. It's the next available date for both schools and for bus transportation, which may be two or three weeks hence."
With buses taking students home - the last dismissal is around 3:30 p.m. - there sometimes aren't enough buses to meet the demand for sports, too.
One recent proposal to ease the demand would have all games start at 4:30 instead of 3:45, but that leaves only about two hours of daylight until April 4, when daylight savings time begins.
On opening day for spring sports, March 22, the sun sets at 6:21 p.m., according to the U.S. Naval Observatory.
The later start time was not a popular option at a Feb. 20 athletic directors meeting.
"It's just impossible to do that," Barnes said. "They may be looking at it as, 'We don't have to get kids out of class,' but there's a safety factor. We'd have to send kids home in the dark every day. I wouldn't want to do that."
Barnes, who maps out the city boys lacrosse schedule, added, "It's a Catch-22. We've scheduled games for 3:45 or 4 and then we still have to wait for some bus companies to do their school runs before they pick us up. Then we're at the mercy of officials to wait for us."
During the winter season, officials showed up for 64 basketball games that had to be postponed. Those officials had to be paid, said Wade, costing the city $6,272.
Pyatt said city schools officials are still trying to find a workable option for spring. She said they expect to have a final plan by Monday.