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Educationby Kimberly Mooney7:42 amFeb 27, 20170

Baltimore schools have a marketing problem? No, they have cockroaches and often no heat

“We’re underfunded, and the decision not to fund our schools is racist, classist, short-sighted and hurts us all,” says a Baltimore school teacher

Above: The city school most densely surrounded by blight, the Roots & Branches School in West Baltimore, has 722 vacant rowhouses within a quarter of a mile. (Fern Shen)

This OP-ED by a Roland Park Middle School Spanish teacher was adapted from a letter she submitted to the City Council on February 10.

Last night I attended your committee meeting at Patterson High School. Since no public comments were taken by the committee, I am sending you my response to what I heard in a letter.

As a 12-year veteran school teacher and city resident, I have strong feelings about what was discussed. I have to start by addressing what Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) chief of staff Alison Perkins-Cohen said as the “voice” of our school system.

Perkins-Cohen’s comments revolved around explaining how the school system’s costs have gone up and how we now have to find “new structural reductions in costs.” I agree that costs have increased; health care costs, for example, have gone up nationwide through no fault of teachers.

But it’s not the case that we need new structural reductions in costs; it’s structural increases in revenue that are needed. The operating costs of our school system are not too high. Instead, the investment that’s being made in education is too low.

The chief of staff went on to say that our city is very different than it was in the 1950s when many of our school buildings were built. She brought up the fact that our buildings are old and sometimes half-filled.

Like too many people in positions of power, she was dancing around the actual issue – that these empty schools are the skeletal remains of a system that white kids got to enjoy in the mid-20th century.

Data showed 722 vacants within a quarter-mile radius of one West Baltimore school. (Fern Shen)

In West Baltimore, students walking home after school. (Fern Shen)

In the 1950s, the white schools were funded by the wealth of the white population. Once school and housing desegregation became law, most of the wealthy white population left the city, leaving poorer residents with discarded, used buildings that they could not keep up without serious investment by the state.

Shamed and Blamed

Our school system’s budget has been underfunded on purpose. The state refuses to acknowledge the studies that the ACLU have provided which demonstrate beyond doubt that it would take billions of dollars in investment to create an equitable educational environment.

Instead, Baltimore City is shamed for the decreasing enrollment in BCPS. The school buildings are falling apart because, even with the 21st Century Schools plan, we’re expected to renovate and rebuild using our system’s operating budget. We can’t afford to do that.

Sending kids to schools that are falling apart and understaffed is unappealing, so the governor offers vouchers to leave public schools and parents take their kids elsewhere. Then we’re told we have to close schools because they’re underutilized.

We know it makes no sense to say, “we’re failing this community (as evidenced by low school enrollment and poor performance/graduation rates) so let’s take the schools out of there entirely.” And yet that’s what we are doing. The school system must cease using rhetoric that plays into the hands of those who would dismantle public education.

Call it like it is: we’re underfunded, and the decision not to fund our schools is racist, classist, short-sighted and hurts us all. For Ms. Perkins-Cohen to frame out decreasing enrollment as “we have a marketing problem” is absurd.

Our school buildings often have no heat. They are infested with cockroaches and mice. And perhaps most importantly, we are unable to address the trauma that kids face in their communities because we can’t afford social workers and psychologists to help them navigate it.

Children and teenagers were prominent in the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray. (Fern Shen)

Children and teenagers were prominent in the protests that followed the death of Freddie Gray. (Fern Shen)

We can’t afford to give them the enriching programs that make them want to engage with school because we don’t have the funding. And now we are being told that the solution is to cut 1,000 more teacher jobs. Sure, we have skillful, hard-working teachers, but that’s exactly what you plan to cut.

I ask myself whether we learned anything from the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray. Our youth scream that they want futures that reflect their potential, and we meet them with the response that we can’t afford that.

Layoffs Imminent

Someone has suggested that we invest in “partnerships” to make sure students still get access to arts experiences after the layoffs. When I hear “partnerships” to me that translates to uncertified people doing the job of a teacher without the same qualifications and receiving unfairly low pay and no benefits.

Just a short while ago, we were supposed to use our arts and technology programs to attract families. But now we have to scrounge to get community partners to try to replace the teachers we’re going to give pink slips to. We’re taking away the reasons kids love school.

A class at City Springs Elementary School. (Oliver Hulland)

A class at City Springs Elementary School. (Oliver Hulland)

Several councilmen have encouraged the teachers and our communities to ramp up our protests to achieve real change. I agree that we all need to funnel our righteous outrage into making our voices loud and clear.

But like frogs in the pot who never jump to save themselves from the boiling water, our community members have been deceived by the anesthetizing of the messages surrounding the layoffs.

I heard several people speak of “layoffs that are being considered” and “potential layoffs.”

These layoffs are happening, and they will be catastrophic. Not only that, but the way the layoffs are being handled by the district is causing more chaos.

Perkins-Cohen said that the teacher contract says layoffs can be decided based on certification, seniority and performance. The contract actually says certification, seniority and qualifications. This leaves us to wonder whether a loose interpretation of the contract will lead to unfair firing practices that disregard the rights of veteran educators who have the experience our students need.

Principals have to submit their staff cuts and budget decisions by February 27. We don’t have until the end of a legislative session or future years when changes could be made to school funding formulas. Teachers are already looking for other work because they have families to support and can’t weather this constant uncertainty.

Stop Acquiescing

So what should our next steps be? The first is to get our own house in order.

At the next School Board meeting on Tuesday, February 27, my colleagues and I will demand to know what options are on the table to avoid layoffs.

The fact that we have heard nothing about furloughs or potential ways of alleviating the budget crisis in terms of the teacher contract negotiations is inexplicable. Teachers want to be part of the solution, and it’s this secrecy that leads parents and the community to think that teachers are somehow being selfish or bringing this on the school system.

If we are to all work together the Board, the CEO, and the BTU need to have open negotiations. Only through transparent leadership can trust be built and the best decisions be reached.

One block from Roots & branches. (Fern Shen)

On Harlem Avenue, one block from the Roots & Branches School. (Fern Shen)

Teachers will also demand that the board stop acquiescing to the under-funding of schools and call on the mayor to increase the city’s contributions to education.

Legislators in Annapolis point to increasing tax revenues in our city and ask us why the state should contribute more when our own city leaders won’t make education a priority. Only when the mayor follows through on her campaign promises to increase education funding will the state take our commitments seriously.

The school funding formula is what it is right now, so the City Council cannot just shift responsibility onto others. You must not say you’ll lobby for the formula to be changed, while you simultaneously grow our “on-paper” property tax values by waiving the responsibility of developers to pay those taxes.

Cities are large economic drivers for states, and a city with an education system that does not support kids’ futures will hold all of us back. For some citizens, the moral imperative to demand equity is enough. For the rest, we must illustrate how Maryland benefits from funding all schools appropriately.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. I look forward to standing together to fight this funding problem head-on.

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