Enraged by a financial crisis that has enveloped the Baltimore school system in layoff talks for weeks, parents, community leaders and even school officials are demanding criminal investigations, threatening to file lawsuits and asking for a shake-up of the school board.

Also, three city school unions will vote today on a crucial compromise that would require them to accept temporary 3.5 percent pay cuts to avoid even deeper salary reductions or possible mass layoffs.

If the unions agree, the city has pledged to lend the school system $8 million to help it meet budget goals this school year.

If the unions reject this package, school officials say, they will impose 6.8 percent pay cuts or lay off up to 1,200 of the system's more than 11,000 employees.

"Clearly, people are fed up," said Kevin Slayton, president of the city school system's Parent Community Advisory Board. "I think parents are just concerned in general with the education in Baltimore City. These children who are primarily children of color seem to get a second-rate education, and I think it's just reached a peak."

As the crisis escalated:

  • At least two parent groups have called for criminal investigations.

  • A group of area clergy has threatened a lawsuit.

  • State school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick is expected to announce tomorrow the makeup of an investigative panel that will look into the schools' finances.

    Bill Reinhard, a state schools spokesman, said Grasmick's panel of private citizens from the business, legal and education fields will launch a "broad-ranging" inquiry.

    "If it looks as though there is criminal wrongdoing, they will turn it over to the [state] attorney general," Reinhard said.

    The school system is facing a $58 million cumulative deficit. As a result, 800 school employees, including teachers, guidance counselors and aides, were laid off earlier this school year.

    Schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland has said she intends to impose a pay cut or lay off workers if the proposal is rejected.

    "This has kind of awoken a deep-seated need in this city for citizens' activism," said Bob Heck, head of Advocates for Reform at the Top, a grassroots group of parents from Roland Park and Mount Washington elementary schools - one of the parent groups calling for a criminal investigation. "We are working hard to try to be the voice of the one group that must be protected, which is children."

    Heck said his group will meet tomorrow morning with the deputy attorney general to discuss its concerns.

    Parents' demands

    Michael Hamilton, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said he will hold a meeting of parents Saturday at Union Baptist Church.

    Hamilton said his group also is calling for a criminal investigation as well as an audit of the system's hiring practices.

    In addition, he said, parents are considering filing lawsuits.