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City schools' heating crisis brings more dialogue between leaders, families, students, and teachers

Mary Rose Madden

The pictures of collapsed ceilings and students wearing parkas and gloves in their classroooms earlier this month outraged parents, grandparents and teachers. 

They showed up at a town hall meeting at Dunbar High School Monday and a school board meeting Tuesday to express fears for their children's safety and complain of a lack of communication from school administrators.

People at the town hall meeting held signs that read “warmth is a basic human right” and “no more excuses.” 

Corey Gaber, a 6th grade teacher in Southwest Baltimore,  charged that school leaders are not being aggressive enough in Annapolis, where state lawmakers decide how much money city schools will get.
“We are too scared to talk about the history, the real history of underfunding," said Gaber, a member of the steering committee of BMORE--Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators, a branch of the Baltimore Teachers’ Union.

"For the past 20 years we’ve been shorted, according to the state’s own definition of adequacy," he said. "And if you add up how short the state is every year over the past 20 years, we’re talking about $3 billion  just based on their own definition of adequacy, not even excellent funding.”

He complained that city schools never saw the money they were told they would have gotten from casino gambling proceeds— a “bait and switch” he called it.

While casinos have pumped billions of dollars into the state’s Education Trust Fund since the first one opened eight years go, schools throughout the state never saw the expected windfall because lawmakers didn't spend any more than the funding formulas required. Some school districts, like Baltimore, lost money.

City Schools’ CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises said she was working on the internal problems, like speeding up the process to assess a school’s facility problems and getting information to families more quickly.

“When a parent drops their child off at school in the morning, they shouldn’t have to leave wondering ‘is my child’s classroom going to be too hot or too cold,’” Santelises said at the town hall meeting. “We have procedures in place to [address] that."

She said the schools have been underfunded for decades, but the "larger issue is in the investment of school funding within this city for these kids.”  

Others at both meetings complained about the lack of parents advocating for their kids in Annapolis.

“Don’t put up a fuss, if your butt ain’t on that bus [to the State House]," warned one parent and  kindergarten teacher at the town hall meeting. Then she turned to Santelises and her Chief of Staff, Alison Perkins-Cohen.

“We are sending money back to the state," she declared. "My question is: what is our plan so that we stop sending money back to Annapolis?”

Since 2009, city schools have had to return millions of state dollars for building upgrades and improvements because they couldn’t complete the projects on time.

Santelises explained that Baltimore, unlike richer suburban jurisdictions, doesn’t have the upfront money to get those projects going. It’s like being penalized because you don’t have a “rich uncle,” she said.

She also responded to Governor Larry Hogan's accusations of mismanagement by city schools leaders. Repeated audits that she asked for during her 18 months on the job all showed no fiscal mismanagement.

Keysha Goodwin, a parent and educator, was at the town hall meeting and the board meeting to talk about how the board distributes the money it does have. The board passed, 6-1, Tuesday the new "“Fair Student Funding.” It allocates money to individual schools based not on student test scores, as in the past, but on student and neighborhood poverty levels. Board members said they would revisit the formula in a year to see how the revisions affected students.

At both meetings, students and parents pressed for more information on the heating crisis. And students and parents said they wanted more access to the school board. One mother said she needed some “relationship-building” from school administrators. 

Santelises and board members promised more dialogue in the future.

Mary Rose is a reporter and senior news producer for 88.1 WYPR FM, a National Public Radio member station in Baltimore. At the local news desk, she assigns stories, organizes special coverage, edits news stories, develops series and reports.
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