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NAACP Charges Racism Over Baltimore County School Legislation

John Lee

Legislation that would give Baltimore County’s executive and the county council more control over how the school system spends money is racist, according to the county NAACP.

Danita Tolson, Baltimore County NAACP president, charges in a letter to Sen. Paul Pinsky, chairman of the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, the bill is racist because School Superintendent Darryl Williams is African American and more minority students are attending the county schools.

The sponsor of the bill, Republican Sen. Chris West, calls that charge offensive. He says the bill would allow the county to make the school system more accountable.

In an interview, Tolson questioned why Williams, and no other school superintendent in Maryland, is the target of the state legislation.

“If you’re going to do something, spread the love to all,” Tolson said.

West called the NAACP’s letter “highly offensive” and “totally off the wall.”

“The suggestion seems to be that because the superintendent of schools in Baltimore County is an African American gentleman, that any criticism of him, or any attempt to require the school system to be accountable for their expenditure of $2 billion of taxpayer money on an annual basis is racist, which is totally unacceptable,” he said.

The Senate committee is reviewing West’s legislation.

West told the committee Thursday he drafted the bill because school officials stonewalled the county’s senate delegation during a confidential briefing about November’s ransomware attack.

“The superintendent did not answer our questions,” West said. “Rather, the superintendent and his legal counsel responded to each question by reciting answers contained on a script.”

Superintendent Williams has said that he cannot reveal much about the ransomware attack because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

The school system takes up about one half of the county’s $3.86 billion budget, according to the county’s website.

West said the school system needs to be held accountable. His legislation would give the county executive and the county council the power to put conditions on money given to the school system.

“With the passage of this bill, the county executive and the county council may, for example, provide that certain money in the school system’s budget may not be spent unless the board of education takes measures to properly secure the school system’s computer network,” West told the committee.

Tolson, with the NAACP, said county officials should not meddle with Williams and the school system.

“Stay in their area of expertise and let him do his job,” Tolson said.

The NAACP’s letter also says West’s legislation would “violate the students’ right to a free, quality, public education,” because it would hold back money from the school system “for reasons arbitrarily deemed as constituting fraud, waste and/or abuse.”

In a separate letter to the committee, Ryan Coleman, president of the  Randallstown branch of the NAACP, said the language in the bill is vague.

“Fundamentally, the bill gives authority to county government branches to amend budget and withhold funds if certain conditions aren’t met,” Coleman writes. “However, neither the conditions nor the procedure is elaborated in the bill.”

West’s bill would leave it to the Baltimore County Council to work out the details.

Speaking in favor of the legislation, Republican County Councilman David Marks told the committee the council currently can only cut the budget which can be an unwieldly way to exert influence.

“Over the past decade preceding the ransomware attack, we’ve seen many times when it might have been useful for the council to have the ability to set conditions on spending,” Marks said.

John Lee is a reporter for WYPR covering Baltimore County. @JohnWesleyLee2
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