DOUG O'Connell, science teacher at Polytechnic Institute, was bent over, stapling signs to thin wooden sticks. That way, the signs could be hoisted higher so the media, passers-by and perhaps the folks inside the white building on North Avenue at Calvert Street could see them.
O'Connell had braved a sweltering Tuesday afternoon to walk around in the sun for 90 minutes or so. He would be joined by 30 to 40 others. There would be no television coverage of their demonstration: Fate had dealt them a bad hand when a pedestrian bridge collapsed on the Beltway. Mother Nature had turned up the heat on them, but they had gathered to turn up the heat on school CEO Robert Booker and the Baltimore City school board.
The issue was more money for three of Baltimore's citywide public schools: Poly, Western and Dunbar. One demonstrator wore a sign that pointed out what supporters of the three schools say is the gross inequity in school funding: City College, $3,334,976; Poly, $92,620; Dunbar, $0; Western, $0.
Those figures represent each school's designated funds for "resources beyond the staffing formula," bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo that basically means this: All schools are given an equal amount of money per student. Any money above that amount is based on special programs or needs the schools have. Poly's $92,620 is for the school's Ingenuity program, which encourages students with exceptional scientific talent.
City College Principal Joe Wilson explained his school's $3.3 million in an earlier column. The figure is actually $2.5 million after a deduction of $800,000 in expenses City pays that other schools don't. The rest, Wilson said, goes for building maintenance, security, reducing class size and at least a dozen programs at City.
No one at this demonstration believes Wilson. O'Connell insists that Wilson still hasn't shown what he's doing with the extra $2.5 million. As for reducing class size, that's "one of the issues we're here about," O'Connell said.
The average class size at Poly is around 34 students. Pamela Gill of Western's PTA said the average class size at Western is 35 to 40 students. Sandy Loughlin, a Poly English teacher, said she visited City for a workshop and noticed class sizes in the 15- to-20-student range.
Most graduates of City, Poly and Western would agree that class sizes of 35 or more at any Baltimore high school are not only outrageous but unacceptable.
"Class size is important," Loughlin said, especially in English classes. Students will get more feedback from teachers on their writing assignments if the class size is only 20 students instead of 40, she said.
Bobby Marinelli, a Poly science teacher for three years, said his classes average 33 to 38 students. State law requires that labs have no more than 24 students. Can you imagine students at the state's premier science high school not being able to take lab courses because of too many students?
Sam Brown has spent 32 years at Poly. He heads the math department and is proud that Poly students boast the best SAT scores in the city, and that all of its students take a year of calculus before they graduate. (A-course Poly students take three semesters of calculus.)
But doesn't such success work against Poly? Won't school board members look at those SAT scores and all those students taking calculus and conclude that Poly doesn't need more money?
"They've always looked at Poly a little differently than other schools," Brown said of school administrators.
Has any member of the current school board visited Poly to look at the lack of supplies and the crowded classes?
"I don't think they know what's going on at Poly," Brown said of the new crop of school commissioners.
Bill Bleich, who teaches English at Poly, says he feels he knows what's going on.
"The core issue is the low funding in the city schools," Bleich said. He remembers that in the 1960s, when city schools were mostly white, the city was around fourth in state funding. The city's share declined, Bleich charged, as the public schools became blacker. Bleich didn't hesitate to note racism as the reason and concluded that "the struggle needs to be to fund all these schools."
Joe Robinson, a Dunbar student who just finished his sophomore year, joined the demonstrators after returning from a Future Business Leaders of America national competition. Robinson said the inequity in funding is not only the fault of the school board but also of Baltimore politicians.
"They go against all our after-school programs, our rec centers, our libraries," Robinson said. "I think it's terrible that our elected officials are becoming the No. 1 advocates for ignorance in the city. It's like they want us to fail."