Angry and articulate, an army of Baltimore city school children, accompanied by parents and teachers, marched before a crowd of more than 200 last night to demand that Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and other city and state officials do something about “miserable” conditions in city schools.
“How can we concentrate and do well when it’s burning hot in class or freezing cold?” said Kiyea Milledge, a sixth grader from Baltimore Freedom Academy, participating in a Speak-Out sponsored by Transform Baltimore, a community coalition pushing a plan to modernize city schools.
“I’m tired of the overflowing toilets, I don’t like that nasty toilet water on my feet,” Milledge said, going on to sharpen her message to the room full of city council members and state legislators.
“Schools in the county get better treatment!” the 11-year-old said, to a roar of affirmation from fellow students. “Step up to the plate. This is unacceptable!”
But organizers of the event, which brought groups from more than 30 schools downtown to the War Memorial Building, had mustered more than moral outrage and grim photo slideshows – they were offering a solution.
If South Carolina Can Do It
The Baltimore Education Coalition has been promoting the Transform Baltimore campaign, a $2.8 billion bond financing strategy that was used successfully in Greenville, S.C. to renovate 70 schools. Using the roughly $61 million that is currently available in annual funds for city school facilities, the group says, a Greenville-type plan in Baltimore could use the money to borrow up-front nearly $1 billion for school facilities.
That’s how much the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland figured (in a report last year) would be needed to modernize city schools. About 70% of them need to be renovated or replaced, the report says.
Thanks to a coincidence of timing, the Coalition’s meeting to present the plan to the Mayor took place just before yesterday’s raucous speak-out.
Mayor Wants Plan That’s “Sustainable and Feasible”
Nicole Johnson, a coalition member, reported to the Speak-out crowd on the City Hall meeting. The news was not what they wanted to hear: “She said she’s not committed to the Greenville plan.” There were hisses and boos.
Rawlings-Blake told the group she agrees there’s a need to improve city school facilities, “but she wants a plan that is sustainable and feasible,” Johnson said. The mayor, Johnson said, promised that she is working on the issue and will have an announcement about her strategy in the future.
For now, Rawlings-Blake has offered few details about it.
“She said she wants to do something big, but we don’t know what and we don’t know when,” she said.
In the wake of the ACLU study, Rawlings-Blake appointed a task force last year to find ways to fund school construction but the group’s promised February report has not materialized. During the run-up to the September primary, Rawlings-Blake angered some education advocates by releasing a plan that would use 9o% of any revenue from a planned Baltimore casino for property tax reduction. (The law permits them to also use those receipts for schools.)
Asked yesterday for her reaction to the Rawlings-Blake meeting, the ACLU’s Bebe Verdery was guarded.
“I was hoping there might be a little more interest in out-of-box solutions,” said Verdery, director of the ACLU of Maryland’s Education Reform Project. “At least she’s not closed off to the idea, she may consider it.”
Johnson said the message for the coalition was that they need to keep up the pressure. “We need to take pictures to document the conditions in the schools.”
Faulty Heating, Broken Water Fountains
The students came up to the microphone in waves, from schools from across the city. Many spoke of how heating and cooling systems don’t work or windows are stuck open or closed, leaving classrooms uncomfortably hot or cold.
Morgan Dow, an eighth grader from City Neighbors Charter School, described the experience: “We’d have jackets and gloves on when we’re taking a test.”
“Do you know any lawyers or surgeons that have to work in their coats? I don’t!” said Reonna Hester, a 12th grader from Baltimore Freedom Academy.
“These are shameful and embarrassing conditions,” said Cameron J. Bowcock a teacher at the school. “In the winter, my classroom is filled with students who must wear their coats in class.”
“These are revolting, abhorrent conditions,” he said, as the contingent from his school returned to their seats chanting: “No justice! No peace! No air! No heat!”
Frosty classrooms were the main complaint for Marcia Wilson, whose son is in 3rd grade at Cross Country Elementary.
“We need heat,” Wilson said. “Every Monday morning, the principal tells the parents, make sure your child dresses warmly because we can’t afford to keep the building heated over the weekend and the classrooms are icy cold!”
Broken cafeteria seats, dingy hallways, bad lighting, missing ceiling tiles, falling-apart doors, cockroaches in the locker rooms and mold on the walls were among other complaints. Gross bathrooms and inoperative drinking fountains were another area of special area of concern.
Natasha Miller has three children at Collington Square Elementary/Middle, where water in the fountains is not drinkable. “We have medical reasons kids need water. They’re dehydrated or they’re playing sports,” Miller said. “It shouldn’t be up to teachers to provide [their students with] water.”
Latiana Graham said she sends her children to the city’s KIPP schools because of their special curriculum and teaching methods but has been horrified by the condition of the buildings, including a bathroom she saw when she went to the school for a special program.
“There was no toilet paper. There were no doors on the stalls,” Graham said. “I, as an adult, couldn’t use the facilities. I had to take the kids down the street.”
ISO: New Thinking on Old Problem
Talking to the advocates running the meeting, it was clear that they regard old attitudes as a problem nearly as formidable as old schools. There in the audience, cheering and applauding, were incumbent politicians who have, in some cases, been in power for years as the problem has worsened.
Among the councilmembers present were Mary Pat Clarke, James B. Kraft, William H. Cole IV, Sharon Green Middleton and City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young. Among the state legislators in the room were Baltimore city delegates Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, Curtis S. Anderson and Maggie McIntosh, as well as Montgomery County Delegate Heather R. Mizeur.
With Tuesday’s general election right around the corner, candidates trying to unseat incumbents were also working the room, among them Green Party candidates Bill Barry (3rd District) and Douglas Armstrong (14th District).
“What Does it Say About Our City?”
A photo slide-show of dilapidated schools buildings and classrooms scrolled by on a screen.
On a board in front of the room were some of the 2,000 postcards sent from city students to Mayor Rawlings-Blake.
Some of the speakers tried to appeal to their listeners’ ambition (“in Greenville, one councilmember was really instrumental in making it happen!”) while others tried to tweak them with some history:
“City Springs has had the same bathrooms through seven presidents, eight governors and seven mayors,” one student said. “The bathrooms are 44 years old, they’re not renovated, they’re disgusting. They’re just old, outdated and now they are beginning to smell.”
“What does it say about our city,” she asked,”that it allows 600 students to experience that every day?”