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City schools' self-inflicted wound

The Sun's report this week that Baltimore City school employees were paid $46 million last year in accrued leave, bonuses, overtime and other benefits is an embarrassment that couldn't come at a more inopportune moment. The department is already facing a $72 million budget deficit next year, along with the prospect of a $36.5 million cut in state aid. This is not a new problem but the product of antiquated policies that have been driving up costs for the city system beyond those of its suburban counterparts for years. It should have been dealt with long ago.

Schools CEO Gregory Thornton and the city school board's have vowed to get to the bottom of the failure in the system's financial controls, which officials say could force the first staff layoffs in more than a decade. But the damage is already done, and it won't easily be repaired because lawmakers in Annapolis can hardly be expected to lend a sympathetic ear when city school officials come before them hat in hand to plead for help in fixing a problem largely of their own making.

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As The Sun's Erica Green reported Tuesday, Baltimore allows employees to cash out much more leave time, sick time and vacation time when they leave the system than other districts do. Year-round employees in the Baltimore Teachers Union can cash out up 72 unused vacation days, according to the current contract, while principals can be compensated for up to 250 unused sick days when they retire. Other employees can get even more. By contrast, Baltimore County caps pay for unused leave time at 40 or 45 days, while Howard County caps it at 40. And neither of those districts allows retirees to cash out unused sick leave.

That's why Baltimore City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young says it's crazy to let city school employees collect unused sick leave when they retire, a benefit most private-sector workers don't enjoy. He's right about that. Clearly, the school board needs to end that policy as well as cap the payouts for unused vacation time for newly hired teachers and principals when they leave the system. That's the only realistic way to bring the system's soaring personnel costs under control and ensure all the department's other commitments are adequately funded. At a minimum, the school system should be setting the same limits on personnel spending for teachers, principals and administrators that apply to other city workers.

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The school system's overly generous benefits packages stem from an earlier era when city teacher salaries were significantly less than those in the surrounding districts. To compensate for the differences in paychecks, Baltimore offered other incentives to attract talented teachers and staff. Though city teachers' salaries today are more comparable to those elsewhere in the state, to some extent the talent drain has remained a concern because of a perception that city schools represent a more challenging work environment than their suburban counterparts. However, the landscape has changed since the adoption of a new employee contract that includes the possibility of rapid pay raises for top teachers. Moreover, a system that creates perverse incentives for teachers and others to come to work when sick is fundamentally flawed.

Mr. Thornton says he has hired consultants to re-examine the department's compensation practices, including those for vacation leave, sick time and overtime. Getting a handle on those issues should allow him to determine whether this year's budget crisis stemmed from unique circumstances owing to the churn among top staffers that occurred when he took over the department last summer or whether it's a built-in imbalance between the system's current compensation model and the available funding that can be expected to recur. If the latter, it's clearly an unsustainable situation and Mr. Thornton needs to get on top of it right away if he hopes to avoid another awkward situation when he pleads his case in Annapolis next year.

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