Cities and states face brutal cutbacks

BALTIMORE – In what could be called a “Thanksgiving massacre,” public school officials here handed out pink slips to 710 Baltimore City Public School (BCPS) employees. At least 1,000 are expected to have lost their jobs by January.

Coming just two days before the holiday season began, the layoffs are aimed at reducing a $52 million budget deficit in the school system, which in 1997 was placed under state control due to falling reading and math test scores.

Cities and states throughout the nation are facing similar deficits, to the tune of a combined total of $150 billion, thanks to Bush’s tax cuts for the rich, his war policy, and the economic recession. A similar budget shortfall in Cleveland, for example, has put 300 firefighter and police jobs on the chopping block. Chicago plans to lay off 1,000 city workers for similar reasons. Big cuts will California after Jan. 1.

Staff at Baltimore School Board headquarters have been slashed by 50 percent, or 298 fulltime positions. The department that oversees school properties and facilities was eliminated with all six employees terminated.

So far, 70 classroom teachers and 13 assistant principals have been terminated. BCPS CEO Bonnie S. Copeland warned that more school workers may be laid off to get the budget in balance.

There was rising anger and many tears among the laid-off workers. Among those handed a pink slip was Joyce P. Wheeler, with 34 years in the schools, who as the city’s only elementary science curriculum specialist helped organize science staff training for thousands of teachers. The efforts are paying off as student test scores have risen dramatically.

“The budget is being balanced on the backs of hardworking people who did not create this crisis,” she wrote in a letter published by the Baltimore Sun. “Eliminating our jobs will not cut fat. It will cut muscle, bone and brain. … Maryland’s fiscal crisis is the price our state pays for war in Iraq and billions in tax cuts for the rich.”

Students at Midtown Academy, a public school, reacted to the crisis by marching in a picket line outside School Board headquarters with a giant banner that proclaimed, “We build schools in Baghdad. Why not in Baltimore?”

Chris Maher, a staff specialist in public education for Advocates for Children and Youth, told the World the Maryland Constitution requires a “thorough and efficient education” for every child. The Thornton Commission established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1997 found that $1.3 billion annually is needed to close the gap for the state’s poor and working-class children, including $250 million more for Baltimore. “If we were getting that money we would be looking at a $200 million surplus rather than a $52 million deficit,” he said. ACY and a broad coalition are demanding full funding of Thornton state aid to education.

The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 44, which represents school custodians, organized a “Save Baltimore Schools” fax and e-mail petition campaign to Copeland, protesting the termination of several dozen janitors.

“The actions you are taking – laying off essential workers – will threaten the health, safety and education of the children of Baltimore,” the petition states.

Local 44 President Glenard S. Middleton Sr. charged that millions could be saved by terminating outside contractors. “At the very meeting layoffs were announced, contracts were still being made with private, for-profit companies,” he said.

As the city reeled from the school layoffs, Mayor Martin O’Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. flew to Detroit to plead with General Motors not to close an assembly plant here, which would destroy another 1,100 jobs.

Kalman Hettleman, a former Baltimore School Board member, wrote in a Baltimore Sun op-ed that Baltimore schools have been hit by “the educational equivalent of a weapon of mass destruction. ... The fallout from this bombshell will be far and wide and deep.”

Hettleman told the World that chronic under-funding has meant severe staff shortages both in administration and the number of classroom instructors. Full funding of the Thornton program would go a long way to close the gap, he said.

Hettleman called Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act “a monstrous unfunded mandate,” with school systems facing termination of all federal aid if students fail to pass rigid achievement tests.

The community group, ACORN, has filed a class action lawsuit seeking an injunction to halt the layoffs. ACORN organizer Mitchell Klein told the World, “Every kid in this city needs a quality education. This layoff is just the latest attack on our schools.” He predicted that Gov. Ehrlich, a right-wing Republican, will seize on the deficit and then “declare a crisis and privatize management of the schools in Baltimore.”

ACORN is also mobilizing for a mass demonstration at the School Board on North Avenue for Dec. 9 at 4:30 p.m.

During an ACORN protest meeting, Wendy Foy, who has a son enrolled at Walbrook High School, pointed out that Maryland has spent millions to build a brand new juvenile detention center in downtown Baltimore. “If they can find the money to put kids in jail, they can find money to educate them to keep them out of jail,” Foy said.

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.