Weighing in on a yearlong dispute over wages for Baltimore public school teachers and aides, a mediation panel recommended yesterday that the city school board grant 3 percent pay raises to more than 8,000 employees.
In a split decision, the three-member panel said the school system has recovered from a recent budget crisis and should give teachers and aides retroactive raises for the current school year, which ends next week. The plan would cost an estimated $11 million.
School officials immediately rejected the panel's recommendations, which are not binding.
"The Baltimore school system is now stable, but it still has a $23 million deficit," said board member Kenneth A. Jones, who sat on the panel and wrote a dissenting opinion. The school system is halfway through a two-year plan to reduce a budget deficit that rose to $58 million last year.
The majority opinion was written by Joshua M. Javits, a neutral arbitrator who was the panel's chairman. The third member, Joel Smith, an attorney for the Baltimore Teachers Union, endorsed the recommendations.
Teachers union president Marietta English vowed there would be a response to the school board's stance, which she called "unfair and unethical." She said school officials accepted a mediation panel's decision in a 1999 labor dispute, when it tipped in the school board's favor.
"I think it's sending a wrong message to the children of Baltimore: that when things don't go your way, you put up your marbles and you go play somewhere else," English said.
In unrelated negotiations, schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland acknowledged that the board also is considering a pay raise for her. Copeland earns $196,800 a year and has not received a pay increase since she was hired in 2003.
City teachers and non-instructional aides have not received raises in three years, but have collected "steps" - routine pay increases based on length of service. Teacher salaries range from $35,000 to $66,000, according to the union. Non-instructional aides, or paraprofessionals, earn an average of $21,000.
The union, which represents about 6,700 teachers and 1,500 aides, says its members deserve raises because they made sacrifices to help the system recover from a cash-flow crisis last school year. After refusing to take pay cuts, employees agreed to shoulder more health care costs and give up their right to convert sick days to cash.
In exchange for the concessions, the school board agreed to discuss a pay increase for teachers and aides this school year, the union said.
But negotiations between the union and school board that began in May last year went nowhere, and an impasse was declared in April. The union initially wanted a 10 percent raise for its members and later reduced the demand to 5 percent. The board made no counter offers, maintaining it could not afford to give raises because of the budget deficit.
Jones, the board member, said denying the raises was not an easy decision.
"This board has had the awful experience of running a large deficit because we did for the children what we wanted to do, without constraints of available funds," Jones said. "Having learned that lesson, we are doing everything for the children and for our teachers that we can do."
After two days of hearings on the dispute, the mediation panel decided the system should be able to afford the raises because it has sufficiently trimmed its operations and is expecting an influx of $55 million in new state money next school year.
The panel said raises would help the system fill classroom positions and would be a deserved reward for staff members, who helped students raise test scores this year, even in "adverse conditions."
It has been a challenging year for school employees. As the system cut its work force to reduce spending, class sizes swelled and teachers' workloads increased. A rash of fights and student-set fires at some middle and high schools during the first few months of the academic year are thought to be linked to the reduced numbers of hall monitors and school police.
English, the head of the union, said she will meet with union members Monday to decide how to respond.
Said English: "We're going to talk to the state [school] board, we're going to appeal to the legislature, and we're going to appeal to the community."