Employees Protest Firm’s Tactics at Baltimore Schools

By Peter Schmidt — September 16, 1992 5 min read

BALTIMORE--The changes that a month of private management have brought to Malcolm X Elementary School here are evident, its employees say, the moment they walk through the door.

The floors are spotless, and the hallways are freshly painted in bright, crayon-like colors.

But the sunny new colors at Malcolm X and eight other schools here cannot hide the anger and resentment that the arrival of Education Alternatives Inc. has engendered in some employees.

“I’ve been put out of a job,’' lamented Ruth A. Stewart, a paraprofessional, last week as she awaited a transfer from Malcolm X, where she has worked for 18 years.

Just a few weeks into the new school year, the complaints of many paraprofessionals and other employees have threatened to stall one of the boldest experiments yet in public school privatization--the takeover of eight elementary schools and one middle school here by a Minneapolis-based, for-profit firm.

Although no one here says he expected the changeover to be painless, neither did district or E.A.I.. officials anticipate the events of the last few weeks: A boycott by teachers of E.A.I.. training sessions, the picketing of city hall by union members protesting E.A.I.. decisions, and the intercession of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke--a major proponent of the effort--to persuade the firm to change some of its plans.

Most teachers interviewed last week said they were excited about the prospect for improved schools in the 110,000-student district, but they were concerned about some of E.A.I.'s proposals for achieving that change.

Officials of the Baltimore Teachers Union, which originally supported the takeover in concept, last week warned that they would mount new efforts to resist implementation of the firm’s plans if it does not address their concerns.

“The contract is in force. We have not agreed to anything at this point,’' Lorretta Johnson, the president of the paraprofessional chapter of the union, said last week.

But David A. Bennett, the president of E.A.I.., said he is confident his firm’s efforts will succeed because it has overcome resistance from unions in other districts, such as Dade County, Fla., where it runs one school.

“We are willing to sit down and be patient and work through the collective-bargaining process,’' he said.

Day-to-Day Control

Under the terms of a five-year contract with the Baltimore City school district, E.A.I.. has agreed to take over the day-to-day management of the nine schools, to train their teachers in new instructional methods, and to produce measurable gains in student achievement.

The contract calls for the company to work with the same amount of money normally allotted to the schools--about $26.6 million, or $5,550 for each of the schools’ approximately 4,800 students.

Education Alternatives has subcontracted with K.P.M.G. Peat Marwick to handle its financial transactions with the district, and with Johnson Controls World Services Inc. to find ways to operate the buildings more efficiently, thus freeing up funds for instructional purposes.

The firm plans to boost student achievement by implementing its copyrighted “Tesseract’’ teaching program, which stresses individual instruction, parental participation, and the active involvement of children in their own education.

In addition, E.A.I.. says it has already spent about $240,000 fixing up the nine schools.

Mr. Bennett said Johnson Controls found “a lot of code violations,’' in the buildings, including bare electrical wires exposed to dripping water, bathrooms without stalls, and large populations of cockroaches and rats.

Johnson Controls, Mr. Bennett said, has addressed these and other problems and has begun rewiring the schools to install in each of them $300,000 to $400,000 worth of technology, including several computers and a telephone for each classroom, by next fall.

Ms. Johnson of the B.T.U. largely dismissed the physical improvements carried out under E.A.I..

“Every school is cleaned up the first week of school,’' she said. “The test will be how they will look six months from now.’'

But other teachers in the buildings described the physical changes thus far as profound.

Mary A. Kirkland, a kindergarten teacher at Harlem Park Elementary School, pointed out to a visitor a drinking fountain in her classroom that had been repaired.

“Usually it takes a plumber a year to come to a building,’' she said. After she complained to a Johnson Controls janitor about the problem earlier this month, “within less than an hour, two plumbers came and fixed a fountain that has been broken since last year.’'

Ms. Kirkland also likes the idea of getting new classroom supplies, including electronic equipment, under E.A.I..'s plan to increase from $60 per student to $150 per student the amount spent on supplies.

Most teachers interviewed last week, however, remained ambivalent about some of E.A.I..'s plans.

Complaints have been aired about wages and hours and about the potential for special-education teachers to lose their jobs if the firm follows through on plans to mainstream more disabled students.

Some teachers also think the firm is vague about the specifics of how the schools will now operate, saying only that the Tesseract method eventually will make it all clear.

A major sticking point is the replacement of paraprofessionals like Ms. Stewart with “instructional interns.’'

The paraprofessionals, union officials say, typically have high school diplomas and perhaps a few college credits, and work at union-negotiated wages starting at about $7 per hour and averaging about $10 per hour.

The interns, on the other hand, are required to have college degrees, but need not have any experience in education. They are paid about $7 per hour, and receive no benefits.

“The interns, as far as we are concerned, have become ‘scabs’ for our jobs,’' complained Ms. Johnson.

The firm had planned to hire 160 such interns and place one in each classroom, transferring excess paraprofessionals to other buildings.

Late last month, the union objected to the removal of the paraprofessionals and accused E.A.I.. of failing to address various labor issues. It boycotted the first of four days of teacher training planned by E.A.I.. and instead staged a protest outside city hall, which holds the purse strings for the schools and ultimately has the power to tear up the E.A.I.. contract.

In response, the Mayor held a meeting with district, company, and union officials, and got assurances that the company would allow paraprofessionals to remain in their schools until they accept transfers elsewhere.

Union officials complain that the inexperienced interns have been of little help so far, and that teachers should be getting paid stipends to train them. Moreover, they assert, the paraprofessionals should at least be given a chance to compete for the internships.

But Mr. Bennett maintained last week that an intern with a college degree is far better prepared to help run a classroom.

Last week, some classrooms at Malcolm X remained without interns, while paraprofessionals were sent to a room to laminate posters as they awaited word on their transfers.

A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 1992 edition of Education Week as Employees Protest Firm’s Tactics at Baltimore Schools