City Schools, City Announce Plan for Schools' Economic Recovery

by Carmen Russolovitch

Official admits 25% of instructional staff will be made redundant in order to meet stringent fiscal goals. If too many positions are vacant, there's a backup plan for hiring teachers from India, bringing them to Baltimore as temporary employees.
MARCH 16, 2004--The City of Baltimore has published its terms for a "Funding Agreement" with Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS). The City will loan BCPSS $42 million on or about March 22, using the City's "rainy day fund."

BCPSS is agreeing to pay back $34 million on or before August 4 of this year, with the remaining $8 million to be repaid "on or before June 30, 2004 "

As the "New Accountability" section of a press release from the Mayor's Press Office calls for certain terms and conditions to be applied to BCPSS "until repayments are made (June 30, 2006)," a reporter called the Mayor's press office to inquire if a typographical error had been made, and that the $8 million payback will occur over a two-year period, rather than this coming June.

John Mayback, a press liaison officer in the Mayor's Office, confirmed that a mistake had been made. "We're sorry for the error," he said, "but these things happen. We don't have the manpower to proofread anything any more. It's amazing how easy it is to slip digits and backdate things when you work in government--and even more amazing that the press rarely catches these errors."

Since the Mayor's Office refers to a "New Accountability," Mayback was asked for a copy of the old accountability policies in order to compare them.

"Oh, we're just saying 'new' because it sounds better," he said. "We couldn't very well say 'first' accountability, because that would make the State, especially, look bad, and in the end it's the state that's going to be coming up with most of the money to make that $34 million payment in August--or even before that."

The City has reserved the right to "demand immediate repayment" from BCPSS if it "reasonably believes that the BCPSS is in breach of the agreement," giving a grace period of 15 days before the payment is demanded. Asked how "immediate repayment" jibes with giving a 15-day grace period, Mayback said, "It sounds stronger and more resolved to say 'immediate,' so people will think we're really being tough, but you know and I know that nothing immediate ever happens in government--and certainly not with this school system."

The agreement calls for "an affordable, downsized staffing model" for BCPSS "based on projected attrition." Will there be layoffs?

"We prefer not to use that term," said Mayback. "It sounds too negative. We do have a plan, though, to make it look like jobs are only lost by attrition, while in fact we're going to prune the instructional staff by a good 25 percent." Asked how this sleight-of-hand could be accomplished without riling the Baltimore City Teachers Union, he said, "We're going to require every teacher to take the State's new graduation test--the one that students will have to pass to get a diploma. We expect, based on a sample exam we administered, that about 25 percent of the classroom teachers won't pass it. It would be really difficult for the union to complain if we let those people go, because how can we reasonably expect our students to pass these tests if their own teachers can't?"

Acknowledging that the schools might be severely understaffed if that many teachers were dismissed, Mayback said, "We have a backup plan for that. We're going to hire teachers from India, and bring them over here as temporary employees. You know, their education system in India is really good, and their university graduates speak and write English much better than the average American. So we see this as a win-win situation. The teachers from India will be happy with half what we're paying the average teacher right now, which is over $40,000 a year."

As city teachers are widely reputed to be underpaid, Mayback was asked to confirm this figure. "No need to check that," he said. "Your typical teacher has been in the system a long time. That's not bad pay, considering they only work 40 weeks a year. Especially considering they're not all that effective."

Mayback was asked if the Mayor's Office intends to administer the high school graduation test to members of the City Council and top city officials. "Are you kidding?" he laughed. "They'd never stand for that!"

It was pointed out that the Funding Agreement calls for many meetings between city and school officials to monitor the schools' fiscal progress, and that therefore it might be a good idea to assure that all city officials prove their ability to read and understand financial statements.

"I'm not going to go there!" exclaimed Mayback, claiming to hear a phone ringing in the distance as he terminated the interview.

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This story was published on March 16, 2004.