Shelly Higgins was leading the seniors at Excel Academy through graduation rehearsals Thursday when she was summoned by the principal. Higgins figured there was a question about the graduation plans.
Instead, she learned she was being laid off.
"I looked at them like, 'You got to be kidding me,'" said Higgins, a health teacher and the senior class advisor at the West Baltimore school. "I looked over at the principal. She had a tissue in her hand. You could tell that she was crying."
Similar scenes played out schools across the city as district administrators fanned out to tell librarians, guidance counselors, assistant principals and support staff that they would lose their jobs. Administrators said they laid off 115 people in all, including the first classroom teachers to lose their jobs in a decade
For many, the news was hard to take.
"I said, 'No, I'm not accepting this.'" Higgins said. "I've been in the system 16 years."
Her layoff hit especially hard at the alternative high school in Poppleton, which lost five students to deadly street violence this year.
"She is one of the teachers that the kids really respect, and she works hard for her kids," said Excel Principal Tammatha Woodhouse. "I will do whatever I can to advocate for her."
The layoffs included 32 people who work in the district headquarters and 83 people in the schools. Among them were 13 classroom teachers, 21 librarians or school counselors, and 24 assistant principals, administrators said.
Leaders of the Baltimore Teachers Union were not happy that the district deployed teams to meet individually with affected employees and give them the bad news. The union reps said these meetings would disturb teachers and disrupt classes.
"The approach the District is taking of going into the schools and interrupting a teacher's day to tell them that they have been laid off is unprecedented," said Marietta English, the union president, in a statement. "This is a humiliating and truly shocking act that comes on the heels of a stressful semester."
The union filed a grievance in April complaining that layoff decisions were based partly on employees' performance evaluations and teaching certifications. The union alleges this is is a violation of the employee contract.
Alison Perkins-Cohen, chief of staff for schools CEO Sonja Santelises, said administrators consider teacher evaluations "one of the critical factors." She said city school officials disagree with union leaders on whether evaluations should be considered.
Santelises warned months ago that 1,000 people could be laid off to help fill a $130 million shortfall in the $1.31 billion budget for next school year. After the shortfall was announced in December, teachers, parents and students held rallies outside City Hall in Baltimore and the State House in Annapolis to get more money. State and city officials pledged nearly $60 million to help narrow the gap, and Santelises scaled back the layoffs to about 300 in recent weeks.
On Thursday, officials announced that number was further reduced to 115 people. It's the third straight year of layoffs in the school district.
The school system employs 11,000 people total, about 6,000 of them teachers. Each year administrators recruit hundreds of new teachers for subjects in which there are staffing shortages. The hiring will continue, officials said, and as many as 200 teachers could be recruited, including those laid off who qualify.
At Excel Academy, Higgins has spent weeks collecting photos and creating a slide show to play at Friday's commencement ceremony.
Higgins was told she wouldn't be required to attend the graduation and was given the option of leaving on Thursday.
"I am a teacher. When you're a true teacher, you're here for the children," she said. "This is their big day tomorrow."
She returned to the graduation rehearsal instead.
Reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.