—– By: Ann Costantino —–
Scores of Baltimore County teachers, wearing matching red shirts saying, “I love my public school,” descended upon Tuesday’s school board meeting to advocate for their annual pay increases and cost of living adjustments after interim Superintendent Verletta White suggested the removal of both at last month’s board meeting. White had proposed a revised budget after County Executive Johnny Olszewski informed the school board that it had to reduce its $1.6 billion budget by $91 million due to the county’s budget crisis.
Over 400 teachers attended the rally. Some held signs, saying, “It’s time to use our OUTSIDE VOICES,” “My second job paid for this sign!” And “Our working conditions are your kids’ working conditions. Funding Matters!”
Teachers who were able to fit in the packed boardroom, flanked the president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County (TABCO), Abby Beytin, as she asked the board not balance the budget on the backs of teachers and staff.
“Public education is the underpinning of our democracy and deserves full funding,” Beytin said. “This is not the time to point fingers at each other and try and place blame as to who is at fault for what decisions. We understand that this board and the staff of Baltimore County Public Schools all want what is best for our children. The only way that will happen for our students is for you to choose the original budget put forward for FY 2020,” Beytin said.. “Be bold, let’s put our children first,” she said.
The rally came on the heels of a tense two weeks after White presented a revised budget at the January 22 board meeting with a recommendation that included cutting the wage increases.
But the statement that set teachers into a tailspin — and TABCO into action — was when White said, “At the direction…of the board chair and vice chair, I’ve been asked to preserve as much of the staffing requests as possible which means eliminating cost of living adjustments and step increases because you can’t do both in terms of preserving the staff requests and trying to preserve the STEP increases and the cost of living increases. This proposal does preserve current staffing and the instructional program…” she said.
But sometime between that statement and Tuesday, White’s words were construed to mean it was the school board’s idea to cut teacher pay raises.
The interpretation of White’s statement, which had been perpetuated or misunderstood by some media outlets, fanned the flames of discontent.
To remedy the budget dilemma, six board members attempted to pass a resolution that would have been sent to the county executive, requesting him to approve the pay increases and to prioritize the system’s new staffing levels.
The resolution failed to pass, but Olszewski, a former teacher, already made it clear last week that he has no intention of looking to teachers to bear the burden of the county’s fiscal crisis, anyway.
In a statement last week, Olszewski said, “We have to find ways to be smarter and more strategic about how we spend taxpayer dollars, including in the school system.” He said, “But to be very clear, while our fiscal situation is challenging, we should not address our challenges on the backs of our educators. We must prioritize our spending so that we can put our people first. I am confident there are opportunities for savings that will not deny our educators what they deserve.”
The school system’s digital learning program called STAT, for Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow, has come under additional scrutiny during a time when the county and school system are being asked to count every penny.
Jayne Lee, the president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County, urged the school system to support staff and students, and to look to the STAT program for budget reductions. “A computer can’t tell if a child couldn’t work well because he was hungry,” she said.
Interim Superintendent White recommended a change to less expensive Chromebook devices which she says would save the system $17 million over three years, a reduction from BCPS’s current $140 million contract with Daly Computers. But White defended the program, stating “Some have suggested that we eliminate the STAT program. Let’s unpack that concept,” she said.
White then said that removing or significantly reducing the program would threaten equity, which provides each student precisely with what he or she needs through personalized software and access to technology. White also said that eliminating STAT would increase teacher workload, autonomy and flexibility. She said that teachers would have to manually input grades if STAT is removed and that new books would have to be purchased. White also said that she didn’t see STAT as a silver bullet. “Our teachers are our silver bullet,” she said.
When the program began in 2014, Ryan Imbriale, the school system’s executive director for the Department of Innovative Learning called the implementation of the STAT program, “Second Order Change.” He stated STAT’s roll-out was designed to be irreversible. Based on White’s remarks, that appears to be the case.
Imbriale organized his own rally last year, where he asked teachers to defend the STAT program in front of the school board as members considered the $140 million budget to continue and expand the program.
But the program, which provides a laptop for every student, and is loaded with educational software, has cost or committed Baltimore County Schools to over $3o0 million for leased laptops between 2014 to 2025, since former Superintendent Dallas Dance announced the initiative in 2013. Not counted are tens of millions also spent annually on software and educational technology contracts and licensing fees.
Despite the expense, and while facing disappointing academic results, White told The Baltimore Sun during a December 2018 interview that the laptop initiative was never designed to increase academic achievement.
For some, White’s statement begs the question: should the school system consider investing its limited resources in different ways?
Respect for system resources
Concerns about some employees’ relationships with technology vendors, as the system procured products and services for the STAT program, came under scrutiny after late 2017 reports by The New York Times and Baltimore Sun questioned Dance and White’s relationship with the Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI). Both education leaders failed to disclose income they earned meeting with ERDI’s education technology clients, while being paid to do so by the company.
Calls for a comprehensive audit of the school system’s procurement practices and technology contracts immediately followed.
Those calls intensified after Dance was indicted and later convicted on perjury charges for lying on his financial disclosure statements. Dance failed to report roughly $147,000 in income he earned consulting for other school systems, organizations and school system vendors.
Last month, as first reported by The Baltimore Sun, a draft version of that audit was sent to the board’s audit committee. But that draft has not been released by board leadership, as board members work with auditors as the report is finalized.
With respect for the system’s resources under a microscope, the refrain echoed on Tuesday was to keep the budget intact: to support teachers, to support students, to support wages.
TABCO President Beytin said to the board, “We ask that you step up. We need you to ask the ‘bold ask.’ That’s what we need,” Beytin said.
“We’re fighting the good fight,” interim Superintendent White said. “If we don’t ask for what we need, who will?” Despite riling up teachers over the idea they could lose their pay increases in the first place, White said, “I do stand behind my original budget proposal.”
BCPS teacher, Jim Melia, put it bluntly. “Our superintendent and school board need to strike a new reality and not balance the bad decision-making of our past leadership on the backs of our teachers and students. We need teachers, we need support staff, we need counselors, improved facilities and supplies. We need to be supported,” he said. “If our county executive finds new funding within the county – or in Annapolis – the proposed initial budget should be fully funded. And if it is not possible, your teachers shouldn’t be the ones to pay.”
The board is scheduled to vote on the FY 2020 Operating Budget during its Feb. 19th board meeting. The public is encouraged to give feedback on the budget at a hearing scheduled for next Tuesday, Feb. 12.