Among the people who came to hear about the school budget crisis in a packed East Baltimore meeting room last night were teachers – who have been told as many as 1,000 of them may be losing their jobs leaving the rest in crowded classrooms to pick up the slack.
“We’ve definitely had cuts and threats of cuts before and I’ve had an ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ attitude,” said Kelsey Sheridan, who is in her fifth year teaching science at Digital Harbor High School.
“But with what we’re hearing now, we’re all really very worried,” said Sheridan, one of about 250 people at a meeting about Baltimore City Public Schools’ $130 million budget deficit, organized by Baltimoreans for Educational Equity.
Teachers at Sheridan’s school have been told that without some kind of a budget fix, each department will lose about one-third of its staff and that average class size would increase by five students.
“Some of of the classes I teach are already at 34-35 students,” Sheridan said. “And you’re talking about five more on top of that?”
Earlier in the day yesterday, at Tench Tilghman Elementary/Middle School, teachers signaled their distress in a more dramatic way – they staged an apparent walk-out over the looming cuts.
With all but a few staffers showing up, students were turned away at the door and parents received calls to come and get their children.
“I am extremely disappointed that staff members may have chosen to express their anxiety about school budgets by disrupting teaching and learning for our students and compromising students’ access to the services and supports we provide,” City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said in a statement.
The Baltimore Teachers’ Union (BTU) said in a statement that it did not condone or support the teachers’ action.
Put Pay Scale on the Table?
Slow-going teacher contract negotiations, meanwhile, are one part of the equation as the budget crisis looms.
School officials attribute the shortfall to declining enrollment and a funding formula that has reduced state school aid by millions in part because subsidies have allowed some developments to pay lower taxes.
Awaiting a more permanent formula fix, Santelises has asked state and city lawmakers for $65 million to lessen the need for sweeping layoffs and cuts. She also briefly noted, speaking to a City Council committee earlier this week, that negotiations on a teachers contract “are on-going.”
Some teachers have criticized the union for being secretive about its negotiating stance and not giving them a say in what concessions they could agree to in order to save their jobs. At issue for some is the merit-based salary scale approved in 2010 under then-CEO Andres Alonso.
One teacher’s online poll, circulated in January, showed an overwhelming preference – approximately 10-1 – for telling the union to give up on the salary scale and “go back to step increases. . . if it means no layoffs.”
“For teachers, it’s a huge frustration,” said Roland Park Elementary/Middle Spanish teacher Kimberly Mooney. “Our union is not willing to put this on the table.”
Differing Union Voices
BTU president Marietta English has not returned a call for comment on the negotiations.
In the run-up to her re-election as union president last year, English said she was proud of negotiating the “most innovative contract in the entire nation,” one that helped make city educators the highest paid in the state.
Mooney, who narrowly lost to English for the union president position, argued at the time that union leaders should be more transparent and called for Baltimore to follow the lead of other Maryland districts and have open negotiations.
Recently, Mooney told The Brew she supports Santelises’ efforts to get more city and state funding (“The school system has been chronically under-funded since 2008!”) but added that “so many moving other parts are involved.”
“We need the City Council to close tax loopholes that giant corporations exploit rather than paying their fair share,” she also said. (Mooney spelled out her position in a Feb. 10 letter to the City Council.)
Sacrificing to Save Jobs
Today she said another necessary strategy is to involve the teachers in the budgetary decision-making. Mooney called on the union and school system to “tell the public how they will work together to make sure we don’t lose teacher jobs.”
To Mooney, a Spanish teacher at Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, that means opening up a dialogue about possible salary concessions.
“If BCPSS and BTU have done everything they can to get funding restored to schools and there is still a deficit and risk of layoffs,” she said, “come to the teachers. Let us show you that we would prefer to make sacrifices to keep our jobs than to dig our heels in and make contract demands that Baltimore can’t afford.”
“Yes, teachers should be paid well, but we’re not in this to be millionaires,” Mooney said. “But if it’s a choice between layoffs that would hurt our students and our families or giving up some things, for most teachers, it’s a no-brainer.”